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.
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.
Photo from Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office
Article II, section VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” In practice, successive Philippine presidents rarely labeled Philippine foreign policy as “independent,” albeit occasionally mentioning the term as part of their rhetoric.
In a stark departure from his predecessors, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly declared that his administration “will pursue an independent foreign policy.” As to what an “independent foreign policy” means became the subject of various discussions. For their part, senior government officials have provided rather broad principles as to how such a policy would take shape. However, in a televised interview last 3 April 2017, the new Philippine top diplomat to China, Ambassador Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, provided a more detailed account of the elements of Duterte’s independent foreign policy and how it would figure in the broader strategic environment. It is thus far the most thorough explanation of an independent foreign policy to come from a Duterte administration official.