Government News Analysis

Securing the summit

On 29 April, the heads of 10 Southeast Asian states will gather at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City, Manila. In the second week of November, those same leaders, along with 11 other world leaders – including US President, Donald Trump; Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang – will be together at a venue in Clark, Pampanga.  These are the pinnacle meetings of this year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit. And the security for all this is likely to be the biggest ever assembled in the Philippines.

Along with a wide-ranging agenda of other related meeting and gatherings spread over the year – the 50th of Asean’s existence – the bill for security is expected to exceed PHP5 billion. And security for the two leaders’ summits will be blotting up a large piece of that budget. Hosting the summits as Asean marks its half century is prestigious and Manila will want to get it right.

To assure the safety of so many foreign dignitaries and thousands of delegates is a huge undertaking at the best of times – and given the problems the Philippines faces with a communist insurgency and an ongoing Islamist terror threat, these are not the best of times. As Philippine Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, said in a speech at the 16th National Convention of Lawyers at the Marriott Hotel in Manila on Friday, the Philippines is living in violent times. “These are increasingly violent times that we find ourselves in,” she said.

In that climate, providing sound security is always going to be a challenge. But the Philippines has done this in the past – and well. It does it every time a foreign head of state makes a call to the Philippines and there has never been a single incident of a security lapse.

In 2015, the Philippines welcomed Pope Francis – the third visit to the country by a pontiff. Logistically, in many ways, this was more complex than the Asean gatherings. Each of the two heads-of-state summits is being held in its own dedicated venue. In 1981, Pope Francis travelled to places in Leyte to meet victims of the devastating Typhoon Yolanda. Pope John Paul II, during his visit made side trips to Bacolod, Baguio, Bataan, Cebu, Iloilo and Legazpi.

Furthermore, the papal visits involved massive crowd-control measures and complex traffic-control logistics – 6 million people turned up for a Mass which Pope Francis celebrated in Rizal Park in Manila (photo). That’s not going to be the case at the Asean gatherings. While people travelled the length of the country to get a glimpse of Pope Francis they’re unlikely to be doing that in the hope of seeing Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, or António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General.

Also in 2015, the Philippines hosted the year-long Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit which culminated with the Apec Economic leaders meeting which was also held at the International Convention Center in Pasay. It, too, was attended by a number of world leaders. This, however, was smaller, with security catering for just 36 related meetings over the course of the year compared to the 119 on the Asean agenda. Moreover, Apec economic ministers came to the Philippines once in 2015, heads of Asean states will be making two visits.

So against that backdrop, there’s no question, the Philippines can handle security on a large scale. And according to Napoleon Taas, head of the Asean Security Task Force, with a month still to go, security is already in place for the first of the two main Asean events – the Asean-heads summit in Manila.

And although tensions have built in the south of the country over the past 12 months with greater threats looming – ISIS at the backdoor – there were similar concerns surrounding the 2015 Apec Economic Leaders’ meeting. It came right on the heels of the Paris terrorist attacks which left 137 people dead. That further focused the minds of Philippine security chiefs who heightened security raising the alert level from blue to red and closing down streets for three days around the summit venue and the delegates’ hotels.

For that summit, some 20,000 police, security and emergency-services personnel were deployed. In addition to closing the streets to ordinary traffic, the Philippine military also secured the venue. Philippine marines installed and manned a battery of anti-aircraft guns around the Philippine International Convention Center as delegates deliberated inside.

More than 1,000 flights were cancelled at Manila International Airport, leaving the immediate airspace free for military helicopters. The no-fly zone was maintained for three days. In nearby Manila Bay naval gunboats patrolled. The venue, which sits in the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex was effectively locked down and protected from all angles.

All that and possibly more will be brought into play to ensure the full protection of those attending next month’s big Asean gathering. The second summit, the November gathering in Clark, is logistically less challenging. For a start, it won’t have to contend with the legendary urban traffic problems of Manila. Clark International Airport, into and out of which many of the delegates will fly, is also in close proximity to the meeting venue

Clark, a freeport zone and a former US military base, is also effectively a gated area with a series of security checkpoints already there. Traffic is fairly minimal and the venue – possibly the Fontana International Convention Centre, where Apec held its second big get-together two years ago – is also relatively easy to secure.

All that security will also come with a measure of inconvenience to the public. Transport will be disrupted and the usual demonstrations that globally accompany events like these will be restricted and  kept well away from the meeting venue. But while all that will be limited, enforcing security will have the trump card.

The total budget for hosting Asean landmark golden jubilee – the organisation was founded in 1967 by the Philippines along with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – is PHP15 billion. That’s PHP5 billion more than what the Philippines spent on the 2015 Apec events.

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