This time, the Arroyo administration did the right thing
Last Friday, hours before the formal opening of the 12th ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the National Organizing Committee (NOC) headed by Ambassador Marciano Paynor, Jr. announced that it was rescheduling the much-anticipated international meeting due to the threat posed by typhoon Seniang (internationally known as Utor). Since then, the committee and the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have been severely criticized for its decision.
The criticism has been accompanied by speculation that the decision to reschedule the Summit was primarily the result of security fears and the prospect of embarrassing political protests against the administration. Australia, Britain, and the United States all issued statements warning of security threats and other concerns arising from the conduct of the Summit. Opposition Philippine politicians and activists announced street protests against ill-timed moves by administration allies to call for a constitutional convention to overhaul the constitution.
My view is that the criticism, in this case, is a bum rap. This is not the first time that natural calamity has caused the cancellation of high-profile meetings in the Philippines. John Forbes, a consultant who has lived in the Philippines for close to two decades, recalled to me how he had been forced to recall private corporate jets transporting FORTUNE 100 executives to the Philippines for an investment summit mid-flight after the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption.
While Seniang’s impact was not as dramatic as that of Mt. Pinatubo – nor the investment summit of the scale of the ASEAN Summit – Seniang was the third major typhoon to strike the Philippines this season. Milenyo brought the National Capital Region to a complete stop in late September, and Reming left a path of destruction in the southern Philippines, striking Bicol particularly hard, just two weeks ago. Considering the destruction wrought by Milenyo and Reming, The New York Times and other international media reported in the hours leading up to the cancellation that the Summit was under threat by the latest typhoon expected to hit the Philippines.
Given the context of this year’s typhoon season, it can be easily argued that a decision not to cancel the Summit would in fact have been irresponsible, despite the negative fallout and the heavy costs involved for both the private and public sectors. Indeed, how likely, one wonders, would it be for world leaders to fly into Cebu given the threat of typhoon conditions and the prospect of severe inclement weather preventing their departure? No regional or other government would happily contemplate the prospect of more than a dozen heads-of-state stranded in Cebu.
What of the speculation that security and political concerns account for or played a role in the rescheduling of the Summit? In my view and those of others that regularly receive security warnings from Australia, Britain, and the United States, the security issue should be discounted. One source I talked to suggested that the warnings are issued routinely on the basis of unverified intelligence to insulate these governments from legal liability.
In the case of the United States’ warning, it was primarily concerned with scarce hotel space, traffic, and limited services available to Americans. It included a standard warning to avoid demonstrations, and only additionally – as if it were an afterthought – mentioned a terrorist threat. There was nothing in the warning to suggest that the American government was concerned with a high-priority or even likely terrorist event.
Certainly, all threats of violent activity should be seriously considered by travelers of any nationality. But the likelihood of such a lukewarm advisory and clearly unsubstantiated security threats being responsible for the cancellation of an international summit involving a large number of heads-of-state accompanied by substantial security contingents reinforced by 10,000 Philippine troops and police officers is just not realistic.
Could the prospect of politically-motivated protests have been of such great concern to Summit organizers that they would account for the cancellation? Again, this scenario is unlikely. Every multilateral summit of world leaders is accompanied by protests. More to the point, local protestors indicated prior to the Summit that that they would not take to the streets until after the now cancelled meeting.
Canceling the 12th ASEAN Summit is nevertheless an extremely unfortunate development. The costs to the local economy and the prestige of the Philippines and Cebu are substantial. But they are also temporary. Much more temporary than the prospect of over a dozen heads-of-state left stranded in the Philippines had the NOC not done the responsible thing. Just as bad is the prospect of a Summit conducted without its principal players, who wisely decided to stay home.