When Regional Cooperation is in the National Interest
Pres. Duterte accepting the gavel that symbolizes the handing over of the ASEAN Chairmanship to the Philippines from Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. Malacanang photo, from ABSCBN News
On August 8, 1967, the five founding members (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the ASEAN Declaration in Bangkok, Thailand that established the organization. ASEAN was driven by the desire of the states to cooperate in economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, and to promote regional peace and stability. The ASEAN is grounded on the principles of mutual respect, non-interference, non-coercion, renunication of the use of threat or force, peaceful settlement of disputes and cooperation as declared under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. In later years, ASEAN was joined by five more countries namely, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.1
Since then, the organization has come a long way. It has established free trade agreements within the organization and with some of its partners; enhanced agriculture, trade and tourism; and cooperated on different aspects like energy, culture, human rights, anti-trafficking of persons, cybersecurity, environment, disaster management, emergency response, and science and technology. During its 30th anniversary, ASEAN Leaders agreed on a shared vision of the ASEAN as an outward looking, peaceful, stable and prosperous region, bonded by partnership in dynamic development, and as a community of caring societies. It aims for establishment of an ASEAN Community consisting of three pillars, namely ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.2 With such achievements, ASEAN has become a high-profile and reliable organization that contributes to the stability in the region.
Next year, ASEAN will be celebrating its 50th anniversary with the Philippines as its host and chair. Chairmanship technically happens only every 10 years, as it rotates annually in alphabetical order of the member states’ names. President Rodrigo Duterte announced that ASEAN 2017 will be themed “Partnering for change, engaging the world.” ASEAN Chairmanship presents a lot of opportunities for the Philippines to improve not only relations with the other members of ASEAN, but also to utilize ASEAN as a support system for its economic and security problems.
During the launch of the civil society organization ASEAN Society Philippines, DFA Assistant Secretary for ASEAN Affairs Ma. Hellen Dela Vega enumerated the six thematic priorities of the Philippines when it becomes the chairman of the ASEAN. The Philippines aims to promote and establish 1) a people-oriented and people-centered region, 2) peace and stability in the region, 3) maritime security cooperation, 4) inclusive growth, 5) resilient ASEAN when it comes to climate change and disaster preparedness, and 6) ASEAN as a model for regionalism and a global player. These thematic priorities are aligned with the interests of the Philippines.
A people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN, for instance, entails the promotion of human rights and welfare and the improvement of basic social services provided by the government. The Duterte administration, internationally criticized for its notorius war on drugs, can make the chairmanship a means to establish cooperation in human rights and in solving the drug problem, by ensuring that there is transparency after anti-drug operations and that its system for going after suspected criminals is rules-based. President Duterte is well-known to be a doer when it comes to providing social services; cooperating with ASEAN can provide his administration possible partnerships in a wide array of fields (ie, health, infrastructure, education, etc) that will help him deliver election campaign promises.
Prioritizing peace and stability in the region as well as maritime security cooperation also means that the Duterte administration sees the value of a united, peaceful ASEAN when dealing with territorial disputes. Countries involved in the South China Sea disputes may have already started their bilateral cooperation and talks with China, but ASEAN as a unified organization will likley have more persuasive power when bargaining with a major power like China. Fast-tracking the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea will deter China from further expansion and militarization of the area.
Cooperation towards an inclusive growth can also help the administration in revitalizing the economy, an important area still lacking proper attention and clear platform under the administration. Improving ASEAN resiliency when it comes to disasters and climate change will also benefit the Philippines largely as it is one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change.3 The administration also needs to see that a sustainable economic development for the ASEAN is necessary and linked to its goal in dealing with the climate crisis.
Achievement of these first five priorities can all contribute to the last thematic priority, which is the capability of ASEAN as a model for regionalism and being a global player. The chairmanship comes at a very strategic period for the Philippines and the Duterte administration. It provides an opportunity to raise concerns and spearhead initiatives that can largely benefit ASEAN member states, especially the Philippines.
1 ASEAN Overview. Accessed November 20, 2016: http://asean.org/asean/about-asean/overview/
3 Global Climate Risk Index 2016. Accessed November 23, 2016: https://germanwatch.org/fr/download/13503.pdf