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When Duterte meets Asean

While Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was the host of the Association of South-east Asia Nations (Asean) Summit this month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was the undoubted star. Mr Duterte’s maverick political persona and lack of familiarity with any of the other leaders, as well as with the diplomatic stage, built up expectation for his regional diplomatic debut.

President Duterte’s maverick political persona and lack of familiarity with other leaders at the Asean summit built up expectation for his regional diplomatic debut. And he did not fail to deliver. Photo: REUTERS

President Duterte’s maverick political persona and lack of familiarity with other leaders at the Asean summit built up expectation for his regional diplomatic debut. And he did not fail to deliver. Photo: REUTERS

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While Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was the host of the Association of South-east Asia Nations (Asean) Summit this month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was the undoubted star. Mr Duterte’s maverick political persona and lack of familiarity with any of the other leaders, as well as with the diplomatic stage, built up expectation for his regional diplomatic debut.

He did not fail to deliver. That the Philippines will be Chair of Asean for its golden anniversary in 2017 simply added to the interest.

Diplomacy is a careful interplay of approach and priorities. Mr Duterte’s debut provided those looking forward to next year with a mixture of concern and relief. Before landing in Vientiane, Mr Duterte had used profane language in relation to United States President Barack Obama, leading to the cancellation of their planned introductory meeting.

At the summit itself, Mr Duterte skipped the Asean-US Summit (and the Asean-India one, too) and dispensed with his prepared speech at the East Asia Summit to lambast human rights abuses during the US colonial rule of the Philippines. Before arriving at the summit, the new President had already announced that he would skip the meeting between Asean leaders and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He did not repeat his earlier threats to withdraw from the global body. On a more positive note, Mr Duterte, fulfilling an election promise to make his first presidential state visit to a fellow Asean member-state, followed up with a bilateral visit to Indonesia.

Mr Duterte’s priorities in relation to Asean are very different from his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, and much less challenging for the grouping’s consensus principle. From 2012, Mr Aquino took a firm stand against Chinese infringement of Philippine maritime rights and pushed hard — with limited success — for Asean support.

Mr Duterte has taken a very different tack, denying that the Philippines’ maritime disputes with China are a matter for Asean. As a result of Manila’s changed position, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has said bilateral ties between China and the Philippines are at a turning point.

The Philippines will take over from Laos as Chair next year, as Asean commemorates the 50th year of its foundation. Mr Duterte is expected to take a leading role in “fronting” the 10-member organisation — not just in heading the dignitaries’ receiving line but also in facilitating discussions, chairing summits and penning the Chairman’s statement. His apparent dislike for formalities and protocol, as evidenced in the Vientiane Summits, will be put to the test, as he is expected to put in long, exhaustive hours as Asean’s premier diplomat.

Aside from the diplomatic demands of the chairmanship, Mr Duterte’s ideological stance may also come under scrutiny. His open declaration of disdain for the US raises more than a few eyebrows, especially as the US is the Philippines’ primary security partner, main source of foreign direct investment and predominant supplier of remittances. The relationship with the US is the Philippines’ most important and, among all South-east Asian nations, the Philippines has the deepest and most-dependent relationship with America. The US is also one of Asean’s most-important dialogue partners, and Mr Duterte’s open animosity towards Washington puts that partnership under stress.

Just last week, Mr Duterte said he would not allow the Philippine Navy to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea with foreign powers, an apparent reference to Washington.

But there is also no guarantee that the current “spring time” in relations between the Philippines and China will hold, especially if bilateral talks on the South China Sea unravel or fail to materialise, and China continues to escalate its unlawful activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Mr Duterte’s approval rating for the moment is very high, but if things go south — especially if his crackdown against drugs fails to deliver tangible improvements on the ground, or concrete evidence of his alleged past human-rights violations come to light —the mercurial leader could soon find himself having to recalibrate his position. In the worst-case scenario, Asean may find itself awkwardly witnessing its voluble and unpredictable Chair locking horns with its two most-important dialogue partners: The US and China.

Another concern for an Asean that prizes stability is the tenuous position of Perfecto Yasay Jr’s tenure as Philippine Foreign Secretary, with speculation spanning from as short as a “few months” to as long as a year.

Already, Manila’s top diplomat has found himself having to “clarify” several of Mr Duterte’s controversial statements on foreign policy, including how he demanded that American Special Forces withdraw from the southern Philippines. If Mr Yasay leaves the scene, his successor will have a steep learning curve in managing Asean affairs, from chairing the Asean Coordinating Council to the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the Asean Regional Forum. It will also fall on his shoulders to build support among the Asean member states for Manila’s proposed chairmanship priorities, which is said to include updating the Asean Charter, Timor Leste’s pending membership and enhanced protection for migrant workers.

Singapore may be the most interested and concerned Asean member state when it comes to the Duterte administration’s chairing of Asean next year. In 2018, Singapore will take over from the Philippines as Chair of Asean, and decisions undertaken during Manila’s chairmanship may circumscribe Singapore’s priorities and deliverables. At the same time, the Philippines will take over from Singapore as the coordinator of the Asean-China dialogue partner relationship in 2018, Asean’s most challenging alliance.

Last year, Singapore marked its Golden Jubilee with a celebration of the nation’s history, success and future hopes. It brought Singapore closer together, and reinforced its hard-earned place in the world. Fingers are crossed that Asean’s 50th birthday next year will do the same for this vital regional grouping.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Malcolm Cook and Tang Siew Mun are Senior Fellows at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The views are their own.

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