Image by King Rodriguez/PPD from (image may be accessed through

Six months have already gone by of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The Southeast Asian region is left with questions as to what the future might hold when the Philippines takes the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017. Since President Duterte took office on June 30 of this year, he has issued, and his aides have retracted, several foreign policy pronouncements concerning the big powers in the region – China and the United States  -- that could impact on ASEAN.

His predecessor President Benigno Aquino III’s foreign policy approach was outspoken in its criticism of China, and the Aquino administration won a case against China that it filed with an international arbitral panel to defend Philippine entitlements in the South China Sea. President Duterte, on the other hand, appeared to take a whole U-turn by re-establishing amicable ties with China and distancing itself from the US, in order to pursue an “independent foreign policy”.  It was during his visit to Beijing last October 18 to 21, that he announced the Philippines’ “separation” from the US in both military and economic terms. He also claimed that ‘US has lost’ and that the Philippines is now “realigning” with China.


The likely announcement by Philippine President Duterte of the Scarborough Shoal as an environmental marine sanctuary and off limits to fishermen could prove to be the first incremental step towards defusing the South China Sea disputes and in the process endow considerable strategic advantages to Beijing.

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.

A 2014 file photo showing the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that was run aground atop the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands in 1999, in a bid by Manila to check the advance of Beijing in the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

Countries jockey for control as if oceans could be tamed, claimed and fenced off like the land.

Wherever you go in the Philippines, the sea is never too far away.

I spent summers as a child lying on sunny beaches and playing in the waves. Sometimes we would go to an island where the white sand, framed by coconut trees, was uninterrupted save for the bleached driftwood filled with tiny crustaceans popping in and out of their burrows. Getting there required a 90-minute journey on a tiny boat with outriggers.

With luck, during the trip, you could peer into the aquamarine waters and see giant starfish and corals lurking just beneath the surface (or so it seemed, as they actually lay many fathoms deep). Sometimes a school of squid or flying fish would jump across the speeding boat and a few would land in your lap.

 With such childhood memories, the sea always beckoned. But I never anticipated that such a big part of my professional life would be spent trying to understand why my country, the Philippines, and many of its neighbours would be quarrelling over the reefs, waters and resources of the South China Sea.

 China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also make claims on the sea. Over the years, some claimant states have set up armed garrisons and military bases, constructed concrete installations over hitherto unspoiled reefs and unilaterally enforced domestic jurisdictions over fishing grounds, fighting wars of words and filing legal suits over who should have jurisdiction over what and on what basis.