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ASEAN at Fifty: Challenges to Unity and Centrality

This essay was originally written for a Conference marking the 90th Anniversary of Southeast Asian Studies and Overseas Chinese Studies in Jinan University, Guangzhou, on July 15-16, 2017. Some text is drawn from the integrative chapter in a newly published volume "Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Sociocultural Reflections" (ERIA, DFA, 2017)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turns 50 in 2017. Critics and supporters of ASEAN have much to say about the group’s achievements and shortcomings since its establishment in 1967. Critics will say ASEAN has been measured and found wanting. There are too many conflicts within and among its members that remain unresolved. The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs have been too privileged in practice, at the expense of effective cooperation and integration. Organizationally, ASEAN is too process-oriented while inadequate in achieving timely results and impact. Consensus among member-states remains shallow even on certain critical issues that require solid agreement. The absence of a common foreign policy and differences in security priorities and threat perceptions continue to stand in the way of a true political-security community, it might also be said.

Image Credit: Reuters/Mark Crisantol

Supporters, on the other hand, will argue: were it not for ASEAN, would Southeast Asia even be as peaceful, stable, and economically progressive as it has been and still is, after several decades? Aren’t the norms and practices associated with the ‘ASEAN Way’ for which it has often been criticized – including informality, nonconfrontation, relying on consensus-based decision making – part of the reasons the member states have remained together all these years? The fact that other countries, including big powers and non-likeminded states, choose to engage in ASEAN-led multilateral arrangements is also clear recognition of the organization’s important contributions.

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  • A succession of nuclear and missile tests and vocal response from its neighbors and the US put the spotlight back again on one of the world’s most enduring flashpoints, the Korean Peninsula. The heated US-DPRK verbal exchanges of threats and Pyongyang’s resolve to push through with its nuclear and missile program despite tightening international sanctions raise serious concern about potential conflict with catastrophic consequences. The conduct of annual US-ROK military exercises in spite of the tense atmosphere, US pronouncements that all options (including military) are on the table, and dispatch of military assets in the area are matched by DPRK’s defiance demonstrated by accelerating the pace and intensity of its nuclear and missile program. All these feed into a deadly spiral that needs to be de-escalated soonest. Recognizing the high stakes involved, the international community began to express deep concern on the issue. Countries bordering DPRK and which have long been engaged in efforts to denuclearize the peninsula, notably ROK, China, Japan, and Russia, along with US, began to undertake measures to tackle the issue, although divergence on how best to proceed with the same is apparent.

    ASEAN2017 50FMM

    Photo from ASEAN 2017

    Although not as proximate, Southeast Asia, which includes US security allies that houses American troops and assets, is within the range of DPRK missiles, which according to Pyongyang are now even able to hit targets as far away as Guam and even mainland US. Thus, Southeast Asia made the developments in the Korean Peninsula one of the key regional and international issues discussed in the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Manila last August 5, 2017. In fact, the recent round of missile tests conducted by DPRK came in third after the South China Sea and violent extremism, terrorism and radicalization indicating the high importance attached by the regional bloc on the matter. Philippines, one of the original members of ASEAN and this year’s ASEAN Summit host, presided over such meetings and, as such, have a hand in shepherding the Association to come up with a common stand on the issue. With a firebrand and unorthodox leader at the helm known for breaking longstanding traditions (e.g. downgrading US security ties, expanding economic ties with China, considering security ties with China and Russia) in his quest for an independent foreign policy, how does Philippines see the issue and what are its interests on the same? What role can it play, if any, in keeping stability in a region known as the engine of global growth and development, but which is long haunted by unresolved disputes such as this one?

    ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO*

    The feeble stance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the South China Sea in the past has been made even weaker by the sudden shift of Philippine foreign policy under the Duterte administration. As the chairman for this year’s summit, the Philippines could have used this opportunity to rally the Southeast Asian states to support and uphold the arbitration ruling that it won in July 2016, affirming the rights of littoral states under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead, President Duterte decided not to talk to China about the ruling for now – while he resets diplomatic ties and secures economic aid from China.

    This essay was originally written for a Conference marking the 90th Anniversary of Southeast Asian Studies and Overseas Chinese Studies in Jinan University, Guangzhou, on July 15-16, 2017. Some text is drawn from the integrative chapter in a newly published volume "Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Sociocultural Reflections" (ERIA, DFA, 2017)

    The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turns 50 in 2017. Critics and supporters of ASEAN have much to say about the group’s achievements and shortcomings since its establishment in 1967. Critics will say ASEAN has been measured and found wanting. There are too many conflicts within and among its members that remain unresolved. The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs have been too privileged in practice, at the expense of effective cooperation and integration. Organizationally, ASEAN is too process-oriented while inadequate in achieving timely results and impact. Consensus among member-states remains shallow even on certain critical issues that require solid agreement. The absence of a common foreign policy and differences in security priorities and threat perceptions continue to stand in the way of a true political-security community, it might also be said.

    Image Credit: Reuters/Mark Crisantol

    Supporters, on the other hand, will argue: were it not for ASEAN, would Southeast Asia even be as peaceful, stable, and economically progressive as it has been and still is, after several decades? Aren’t the norms and practices associated with the ‘ASEAN Way’ for which it has often been criticized – including informality, nonconfrontation, relying on consensus-based decision making – part of the reasons the member states have remained together all these years? The fact that other countries, including big powers and non-likeminded states, choose to engage in ASEAN-led multilateral arrangements is also clear recognition of the organization’s important contributions.

    Photo from: Japan Times

    Since Donald Trump took office as the new president of the United States, he has been giving confusing signals to the international community and allies as to how the US will pursue its longstanding role as champion of the liberal democratic order and number one security provider all over the world.

    As promised during the presidential campaign, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in January, and in June withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. During the presidential campaign, he criticized China for being a “currency manipulator” and angered Beijing in his telephone call to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Eventually, he reversed his stand and told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would honor the “One China” policy, at the request of the latter.

    Many questions are being asked about how evolving big power dynamics should be managed and how to properly adapt to the new circumstances.

    The Indomalphi (Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines) implemented their first joint maritime patrol in June 2017, after almost a year since the signing of the framework in 2016. The recent attack of the Maute group in Marawi reaffirmed the need and urgency of cooperation. With growing common threats, how can trilateral or minilateral arrangements such as Indomalphi contribute to ASEAN security? What are the implications for ASEAN security cooperation?

    Photo by Bobby Nugroho, Nikkei Asian Review*

    President Duterte had been criticized for appearing soft in defending Philippine national interests in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), especially in the face of his decision to expand cooperation with a fellow disputant and potential external security threat. Such criticism largely rests on two key assumptions: 1) that asserting the country’s landmark victory in the 2016 arbitration decision is the best way to defend the country’s WPS interests and canvassing regional and international support is the best way to pressure China into compliance and; 2) maintaining robust or even deepening security relations with the US is the best deterrence against Chinese expansionism in the tightly contested strategic and resource-rich sea..

    Duterte’s misgivings about the two aforementioned assumptions can be attributed to the following observations: 1) that other claimant states, notably Malaysia, and even Vietnam and Indonesia (China’s excessive nine dash line claim overlaps with Indonesia’s Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone) were able to manage their disputes with China through diplomacy without resorting to arbitration or other third party legal approaches; 2) China’s rise as a regional and global development partner and provider of economic goods will make such international pressure to compel China to submit unlikely to prosper and 3) that South China Sea (SCS) does not appear high in US foreign policy and that US security commitment to regional allies may waver or become unreliable under the Trump Administration.

    Close to marking its first year in office, the Duterte administration has turned around the country’s relations with China in a number of ways. Departing from the previous government’s strong opposition to China’s expansive claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea, Duterte has downplayed the territorial and maritime disputes in favor of pursuing close economic and political ties with China. 

    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during Leader's Roundtable Summit of the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. Source: Rappler

    Image taken from The Philippine Star

    In November last year, Donald Trump won the United States’ Presidential elections, consequently kickstarting a new US foreign policy. During his campaign, Trump advocated a domestic-focused America and a reduced global role - threatening to move away from traditional allies, pull away from defense treaties, and withdraw from trade negotiations and partnerships.

    Although critics often point to the apparent discrepancies and unpredictability in Philippine foreign policy as expressed by its chief architect, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, several emerging consistencies can be gathered. In the same vein as other countries that opted not to spell out the specifics of their foreign policy strategy, especially on critical and sensitive issues, in order to have ample room for maneuver and negotiation, these incipient consistencies have yet to be formally articulated in a coherent form, more so applied in reference to a certain foreign policy priority. Although not definitive, an appreciation of some of these nascent consistencies can give one a better outlook of the continuously evolving Philippine diplomacy. Furthermore, beyond his infamous rhetoric which surely played a lot in getting him Times’ 2017 Most Influential Person Award, Duterte’s actions, by and large, resonate as regional responses to the brewing US-China tussle.

    Six months after Rodrigo Duterte brought home $24 billion in pledges from China, the Philippines seems to be speeding up the implementation of the 13 bilateral agreements signed during his state visit, as these will aid the administration’s goal for the country to enter into a golden age of infrastructure.

    Bank of China

    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with the top executives from Bank of China on April 8, 2017.

    Even during his candidacy for president, Duterte had been clear on his preference for friendly relations with China. In one gathering where he was invited to speak, he vowed to ask the country to help the Philippines build railways and set aside differences for the meantime. Indeed, once he was seated in office, the two neighboring states reopened bilateral talks—commencing with Duterte’s state visit in October last year. High-level meetings followed the visit to iron out implementation details of the agreements.

  • Presented by Dr. Aileen Baviera during the APPFI's roundtable discussion on "China's Belt and Road Initiative and Philippines-China Infrastructure Cooperation" held on July 11, 2017 at the Astoria Plaza, Pasig City.

    Presented by Dr. Cielito Habito during the APPFI's roundtable discussion on "China's Belt and Road Initiative and Philippines-China Infrastructure Cooperation" held on July 11, 2017 at the Astoria Plaza, Pasig City.

    Presented by Prof. Chen Hanxi of the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies during his public lecture held last May 4, 2017. The lecture was co-organized by APPFI and UP Asian Center.

    Presented by Prof. Zhou Fangyin of the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies during his public lecture held last May 4, 2017. The lecture was co-organized by APPFI and UP Asian Center.

    The attached presentation was made by Prof. Raphael P.M. Lotilla as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies at a seminar on "One Belt One Road Initiative: Multilateral Promotion & Suggestions". The seminar was jointly organized by the National Institute of Global Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China on 27 April 2017.  Prof. Lotilla thanks PIDS researchers Mr. Jan Oseo and Ms. Christine Salazar for providing excellent research assistance. The presentation built upon previous presentations made by PIDS Fellows Dr. Danny Israel and Dr. Sonny Domingo at previous OBOR discussions. These presentations are also made available as background materials. Prof. Lotillla serves as Chair of the APPFI Board.

    An Interactive E-Book by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio

    Click on the image to view the e-book.

    Presented by Mr. Herman Kraft during the fourth panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

    Presented by Mr. Chito Sta. Romana during the fourth panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

    Presented by Mr. Lucio Pitlo III during the third panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

  • Photo courtesy of Dr. Francisco Magno taken during the PPSA Distinguished Leadership Lecture, 1 March 2017

    I was fortunate to have done my M.A. and Ph.D. studies in Washington D.C. and my doctoral dissertation research in the United Nations and in Southeast Asia. It was a privilege for me to have witnessed upclose the dynamics of domestic and international politics in my host countries during the escalation of the Vietnam War and the height of the anti-war movement in the 1960s, triggered by the assassination of the leading anti-war advocates, Rev. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy.

    My exposure to the realities of international politics deepened my appreciation of ideologies and alternative political and social systems. It strengthened my resolve to devote my career in the service of peace promotion.

    Q & A with Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, former journalist, lecturer, and ambassador-designate

    to the People’s Republic of China.

    Photo taken during In Search for a China Strategy, a symposium organized by Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc. and UP Asian Center last August 17-18, 2016.

    [NOTE: The answers to this Q & A draw in large part from a published article by the interviewee, titled “China’s Foreign Policy and the Territorial and Maritime Disputes Between the Philippines and China”, which appeared in A Quest For Regional Solutions: Challenges And Prospects For Conflicts In The South China Sea. Benedikt Seemann and Marie Antoinette De Jesus, Eds. Makati City: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2016, pages 36-49.]  

    IN YOUR VIEW, WHAT IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF THE PROBLEMS BETWEEN CHINA AND THE PHILIPPINES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA?

    The root cause of the problems between the Philippines and China has to do with the territorial and maritime disputes between the two countries. There are several dimensions to these disputes: the first is the issue of territorial sovereignty and the competing claims between the two countries over Scarborough Shoal and some maritime features in the Spratlys.

    The second is the issue of maritime rights and jurisdiction:  the status of these contested islets, rocks and shoals, and their respective maritime entitlements, if any, and the competition for economic resources, such as fisheries, oil and natural gas, in the surrounding waters.

    Click here to Watch CNN Philippines' interview with Mr. Chito Sta Romana

    Interviewer: How does this ruling affect relations between China anad the Philippines?

    Chito Sta Romana: It’s a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because how to convert this legal document – the legal advantage – into reality. How to convince the Chinese to accept this and to abide by this ruling. But the opportunity is that we are facing the Chinese now with a new administration. The new administration has signalled a less adversarial, more concillatory approach to China – so, that may work in the Philippines’ favor. However, expect the Chinese right now to take a hard line. Expect a barrage of media, diplomatic… a lot of hot words in the coming few days as they take a defiant stand. This is a bit reminiscent of what happened in the Tiananmen Square, when the whole world practically was condemning China, and the Chinese took their position. Until eventually, there was an economic boom and the situation turned. So, I think we’l see more of that – the Chinese will pay a price to their image but it will create ripples in Chinese society that could eventually work in our favor.

    South China Sea, Arbitration, The Hague, Duterte Foreign Policy

    ABSCBN's interview with Professors Herman Kraft and Chito Sta Romana, and Atty. Harry Roque after the Hague's release of the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea.

    South China Sea, Arbitration, Philippines-China Relations, The Hague, West Philippine Sea, Scarborough Shoal, Arbitration Award, Duterte Foreign Policy

    Dr. Antoinette R. Raquiza, APPFI vice president and associate professor at the University of the Philippines Asian Center, was interviewed by the Fudan Development Institute during the “Building the Belt and Road: Connection, Innovation and Sustainable Development: Dialogue and Silk Road Think Tank Association Conference,” held from 22 to 24 February 2016, in Shenzhen, China. The interview is featured below with permission from the FDI. 

    Interviewer: Lu Ting (LT)

    Interview, Silk Road, Philippines-China Relations

    On behalf of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc., I would like to thank PHILEXPORT and APPFI for inviting us to this forum. The Philippines and China share long trade relations. Given our centuries-old ties, we have increased our cooperation and partnership in various fields. However, political relations have been strained recently with the West Philippine Sea issue.

    Chinese Investments in PH, PH-China Economic Relations, FFCCCII

    Allow me also to express PHILEXPORT’s honor and pleasure to welcome you all and to co-organize this timely and important roundtable discussion of Philippine-China trade and investment relations. The Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. or PHILEXPORT and APPFI have the common thrust, among others, of promoting development through dialogues and cooperation projects.  Acknowledging China as an important trade and investment partner, we thought that this discussion will be a relevant contribution to easing and/or mitigating possible economic impacts that the current political tension maybe creating on the trade relations of both countries.

    Chinese Investments in PH, PH-China Trade, PHILEXPORT, Tourism, Technology Transfer