Asia

Duterte wants Asean to include Turkey, Mongolia

Duterte wants Asean to include Turkey, Mongolia
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Reuters
Published: 2:45 PM, May 16, 2017
Updated: 12:06 AM, May 17, 2017

DAVAO — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Tuesday (May 16) he would push for the inclusion of Turkey and Mongolia into a grouping of South-east Asian nations, dismissing concerns about their geographic location.

Mr Duterte, whose nation holds the rotating Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) chairmanship this year, said leaders of Turkey and Mongolia told him about their desire to join Asean while they were in China over the weekend for a summit on a global trade infrastructure project.

“They want to join Asean and since I am now the chair, the Philippines is, they wanted me to sponsor their entry and I said, ‘Yes, why not’,’’ he said.

The 10-member Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam together.
Geographic location is the first criterion for Asean membership, along with recognition by all other members. 

East Timor has for years sought Asean membership but only holds observer status. 

A North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member bordering the Middle East, Turkey straddles Europe and Asia. Its application for membership to the European Union has been bogged down for years.
Mongolia is a landlocked nation wedged between China and Russia.

However, Mr Duterte insisted that the two nations were part of the region. “They are. I would say that they are,” he said. 

“Turkey seems to be ambivalent on whether to be a bridge of Europe and Asia or being an Asian ... Sometimes they say they are part of Asia. Sometimes they say they are a bridge of Asia to Europe.”
However, the Asean Secretariat said Turkey and Mongolia have “never applied” for membership to the bloc.

“This issue has never come up for discussion in Asean,” Mr Lee Yoong Yoong, community affairs director of the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat, told AFP via email. 

Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said Mr Duterte’s suggestion is a non-starter as Asean is not seeking nor interested to expand its membership, not with East Timor’s candidacy still unsettled. 

“Geographical imprint is a major factor in the regional organisation’s membership, and neither Mongolia nor Turkey meet this criteria,” Dr Tang said in an email to TODAY. 

However, he said there are other avenues for these countries to engage Asean besides a full membership. 

“One possible route for both countries to consider is ‘sectoral partnership’. But this is by no means an easy route as Mongolia and Turkey need to make the case of substantial and sustained interactions with Asean.” 

Dr Tang also said the matter boils down to the question of “what do these countries bring to Asean” and what the regional grouping could offer in return. “At the end of the day, Asean is not a diplomatic club with open doors and it takes its relations with external partners very seriously,” he said. 

Agreeing that Mr Duterte’s idea is far-fetched, Dr Aries Arugay, associate professor for the department of political science at the University of the Philippines nevertheless said it reflects the President’s pragmatism in pursuing foreign relations. 

“It also stems from the fact that Turkey and Mongolia are not members of any regional grouping within their neighbourhood,” he said. 
“Mr Duterte’s openness to expand Asean is to invite other small powers that are often in disadvantageous situations with bigger powers. In his view, small powers when grouped together can become an influential voice in regional and global affairs.” 

Mr Duterte was speaking to reporters in Manila after returning from Beijing, where he had separate meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang on the sidelines of a summit on a global trade infrastructure project.

Mr Duterte praised China’s leaders as being “generous”, “very liberal” and “sincere”. He added that he was open to exploring the South China Sea’s natural resources with rival claimants China and Vietnam, after securing a “windfall” while in Beijing.

“If we can get something there with no hassle at all, why not?” Mr Duterte said, adding that the deal would have to be “fair and balanced”. AGENCIES WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KOI KYE LEE