As Asean chair, Philippines faces dilemma over what agenda to push
Manila could focus talks on the South China Sea dispute, but Duterte is expected to also seek help on issues tied to his domestic policies, including drugs and terrorism
After taking over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year, the Philippines has again found itself at the centre of regional politics.
Manila is under growing pressure to ensure unity among member states and reassert the centrality of the organisation body in defining security.
The South China Sea disputes, in particular, will certainly test the Philippines’ ability to lead the group and balance competing interests. This was evident during the bloc’s foreign ministers meeting last week in Boracay, where Southeast Asian countries expressed unanimous concern over “very unsettling” militarisation of maritime disputes, especially the decision of certain claimant states to place advanced weapons systems on disputed land features in the South China Sea.
There are also growing worries over Sino-American tensions in the area. Early this month, a Chinese military surveillance aircraft intercepted a US Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft flying over the disputed waters, raising the prospect of an aerial collision between the two superpowers. Not long after, America deployed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier as part of what it calls routine operations in the waters.
Asean is scrambling for a unified and coherent response. As bloc chairman, the Philippines faces a dilemma. It can use its leverage to place its preferred issues at the centre of the discourse, but if it wants to be seen as a responsible chairman, Manila should respect the diverse interests of member states, not all of whom see eye-to-eye on issues that concern sovereignty.
The Philippines’ own roller coaster foreign policy is emblematic of the profound strategic dilemma faced by other Southeast Asian nations as they try to effectively respond to emerging security challenges.
From mid-2012 to mid-2016, the Philippines, then under the Benigno Aquino administration, strongly advocated putting South China Sea disputes at the heart of the bloc’s agenda. From the perspective of Aquino, Asean should stand united in criticising any unilateral and coercive action, which undermines regional security.
In particular, the Philippines sought to expedite talks over a legally binding Code of Conduct to regulate the behaviour of all claimant states, in accordance with shared regional norms and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Aquino administration also sought to rally regional support for its landmark arbitration case against China at The Hague.
China boycotted the court proceedings, dismissing the ruling as baseless and without legal merit. Meanwhile, certain bloc members, particularly Cambodia, vehemently opposed raising the issue in regional discussions.
In the end, Asean (under the chairmanship of Laos) didn’t mention the award which was handed in any joint statements. To be fair, the body has expressed its “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” and its recognition of “universally recognised” principles of international law and UNCLOS.
Naturally, everyone wondered what Manila would do when it took up the chairmanship. Since his inauguration, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, has taken a radically different approach. He swiftly reopened communication channels with China to ease tensions and revive bilateral investment. Duterte refused to raise the arbitration award in a multilateral forum, arguing the case involved only the Philippines and China.
Instead of calling for compliance with the award, the Duterte administration urged “patience and sobriety”, emphasising the need for dialogue and diplomacy. He also sought to shift the regional agenda towards combating transnational crime and terrorism, where there seems to be a regional consensus and a shared sense of urgency.
More specifically, Duterte seeks regional cooperation on combating the proliferation of illegal drugs, maritime piracy, and the intrusion of extremist groups, particularly the so-called Islamic State and its offshoots, into Southeast Asia. His administration is interested in greater intelligence sharing and tactical cooperation among Asean countries to tackle such transnational terrorist groups.
The Philippines is expected to promote an initiative in this regard, specifically the proposed Manila Declaration to Combat the Rise of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism.
Duterte is also seeking to step up regional efforts in fighting illegal drugs, the centrepiece of his domestic policy. The Philippines will also likely promote economic integration and infrastructure connectivity among member states, as the deadline for the establishment of a Common Market approaches.
The South China Sea disputes will be part of the regional agenda, with the Philippines aiming to fast-track the negotiation of a framework for a Code of Conduct. However, Manila is more interested in promoting less divisive and sensitive issues that are closer to Duterte’s heart, namely fighting terrorism and transnational crime.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The USA, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific