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The Big Read: Duterte’s shift towards Beijing spells more trouble for Asean centrality

SINGAPORE — Well before Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China last week, where he announced his country’s “separation” from its treaty ally, the United States, the writing was already on the wall: Manila would distance itself from Washington and move closer to Beijing.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while answering questions during a news conference upon his arrival from a state visit in Japan at the Davao International Airport in Davao city, Philippines on Oct 27, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while answering questions during a news conference upon his arrival from a state visit in Japan at the Davao International Airport in Davao city, Philippines on Oct 27, 2016. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — Well before Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China last week, where he announced his country’s “separation” from its treaty ally, the United States, the writing was already on the wall: Manila would distance itself from Washington and move closer to Beijing.

For weeks, he heaped praise on China and lashed out at the US, often using vulgar language. All this, he said, was part of his move to chart a more independent foreign policy not tied to America, the Philippines’ most important ally for 70 years.

Mr Duterte clarified upon his return from China that his separation remark did not mean cutting diplomatic ties with the US.

But he sent the clearest signal of his shift away from Washington’s orbit by announcing this week that he wants to revoke a 2014 defence pact signed by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, and get foreign troops out of the Philippines in two years.

The defence agreement allows the US to station troops in five Philippines military bases, and is a central plank of President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia.

Mr Duterte’s move to break out of the US’ orbit has wider geopolitical implications for South-east Asian countries worried about Beijing’s growing influence and America’s long-term commitment to the region, say experts interviewed by TODAY.

There are also concerns about the impact on the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), as the Philippines will assume chairmanship of the grouping next year and take over as coordinator of the Asean-China dialogue partner relations in 2018.

“An Asean chair that is openly hostile to (the US), one of Asean’s most important dialogue partners, will undermine the regional organisation’s centrality,” said Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

He was referring to the grouping’s central role in driving various regional security and economic forums — a key principle used by Asean to uphold its interests and discourage other countries from pushing their own agendas in the region.

“Asean centrality works because of its impartiality and openness to one and all. The Philippines’ turn towards China serves to turn Asean centrality on its head.”

WHITHER ASEAN CONSENSUS ON SOUTH CHINA SEA?

Relations between Asean and China have hit a rocky patch over the last few years, exacerbated by a mix of economic and geopolitical stresses, including wrangling over territory in the South China Sea.

There are competing claims between China and four Asean nations — the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan.

Asean came under scrutiny in July when a joint statement issued by the grouping’s foreign ministers made no specific mention of an international court ruling in The Hague weeks earlier which rejected Beijing’s claims in the regional waterway.

Cambodia, which has close ties with China, has been singled out as an Asean member which blocked consensus at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Laos, leading to the omission.

The case was filed by the Philippines under the previous administration after a 2012 standoff with China in the Scarborough Shoal over incursions by Chinese fishing boats.

China, whose massive reclamation activities and building of airstrips in the disputed waters in recent years have given rise to fears of militarisation in the South China Sea, has firmly rejected the ruling.

During Mr Duterte’s visit to China last week, both sides agreed to hold direct talks over the maritime dispute, rather than under the auspices of Asean. The move by China and the Philippines to reopen discussions after a hiatus of about four years offers the promise of de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea.

But analysts say that by not pressing claims against Beijing despite a favourable ruling by the Hague tribunal, Mr Duterte has made it hard for the US and its allies to rally international pressure on China over the issue.

Asean’s ability to forge consensus on the South China Sea issue could also be further weakened.

“Manila’s ‘defection’ will deal a major blow to Asean’s quest for a united position on the South China Sea dispute,” said Prof Zhang Baohui, an expert on international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

He noted that among Asean countries, Vietnam and the Philippines had previously pushed for a more muscular stance against Beijing.

But Mr Duterte’s pivot towards China now effectively leaves Vietnam isolated, said Prof Zhang, adding that Hanoi has recently moved to improve ties with China.

He cited as examples the pledge by Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to work with China to manage maritime relations during his visit to Beijing last month, as well as the Chinese Navy’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay this month.

Dr Euan Graham, director of International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, added that the Philippines may have moved “too close to Beijing” for most Asean members on the South China Sea issue.

“What we know about Duterte suggests he is not a consensus player,” he said. “So, there is likely to be trouble and division ahead for Asean members and partners who wish to see more push-back against China’s pushiness in the South China Sea — though in Duterte’s worldview, it is not clear how much stock he sets by Asean.”

While arriving at an Asean consensus on the South China Sea issue has been difficult for the past few years, the grouping has managed to hold on to the basic principles of rule of law and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

“It is Manila’s right to discuss (the issue) bilaterally with Beijing. In fact, these overtures should be encouraged as they will de-escalate rising tensions in the South China Sea,” said 
Dr Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“However, Manila should consider Asean’s larger and overriding interest in preserving and upholding the sanctity of international law as the principle of international affairs.”

WHAT IT MEANS FOR CHINA AND US

Analysts say economics was a key consideration behind Mr Duterte’s move towards China. Beijing had retaliated against Manila’s move to file the case against its claims in the South China Sea by banning fruit imports from the Philippines.

“He recognises that the spat with Beijing has meant that the Philippines is missing out on China’s largesse,” 
Mr Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington wrote in a commentary last week.

Since Mr Duterte took office on June 30 and signalled his wish to work with China, Beijing has lifted a ban on imports of Philippine bananas and pineapples and removed an advisory against travel to the Philippines.

During Mr Duterte’s visit last week, both countries also signed 13 bilateral agreements, including some which could result in large-scale infrastructure projects being built in the Philippines by Chinese state-owned firms. Despite the warmth, however, observers say that given Mr Duterte’s unpredictability and at times contradictory statements, China will treat the new leader with some degree of wariness.

Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said Beijing would likely proceed first with economic cooperation and not on security issues.

“China will be wary of overplaying its hand on the military front. Duterte is a mercurial personality and could just as easily pivot away from China if it presses too hard against the Philippines’ sovereignty,” he said.

Dr Graham noted that Mr Duterte will also have to stave off domestic criticism for his stridently anti-American, pro-Chinese positions.

A poll by the Pew Research Center last year showed that 92 per cent of Filipino residents held a favourable view of the US, the highest among Asian countries.

“Overall, US-Philippines ties are undergirded by layers and layers of institutions that will give it some resilience,” said Prof Aileen Baviera of the University of Philippines’ Asian Center.

Meanwhile, South-east Asian nations which want a share of China’s economic largesse but fear its strategic ambitions will be assessing developments carefully.

“China has been using incentives, largely economic ones, to shape the South China Sea policies of various Asean countries,” said Lingnan University’s Prof Zhang.

“Duterte’s achievement in Beijing may convince some of these countries that cooperating with China may be the best strategy for their national interests. If so, more countries will pursue their own rapprochement with China, and Asean will be further divided.”

Already, there are signs of a split. Thailand has in recent months edged closer to China after relations between the ruling junta and the US cooled because of Western criticism of the 2014 coup. In July, for example, Bangkok announced it would buy three submarines from China at a cost of US$1 billion (S$1.39 million).

There are signs of a similar shift in Malaysia, whose ties with the US have cooled following the 1MDB affair and actions taken by the Justice Department in its wake. In June, following a special meeting between the foreign ministers of Asean and China, the Malaysian foreign ministry released and then quickly retracted an Asean statement expressing “serious concern” over developments in the South China Sea.

A month later, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman was absent from the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in Laos. Next week, Prime Minister Najib Razak will make a week-long visit to China, where he will meet senior Chinese leaders and witness the signing of a slew of bilateral agreements.

On Friday (Oct 28), news broke that among the deals to be signed is one which will see Malaysia buy littoral mission ships from China. If sealed, the purchase will be the first significant defence deal between the two countries.

WHAT OF SINGAPORE?

Concerns have risen that the Philippines’ pivot towards China would complicate matters for the Republic, the current coordinator of Asean-China relations.

The Chinese media recently lashed out at Singapore for what it deemed “inappropriate” actions at the recent Non-Aligned Movement Summit, drawing a sharp response from the Republic, which called the report “irresponsible”. Beijing has also called on Singapore to respect China’s stance on the Hague tribunal’s ruling.

Singapore is not a claimant state and does not take sides in the South China Sea dispute, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the Republic has “key interests” to protect. These include freedom of navigation and oversight in the region, as well as a rules-based international order that upholds and protects the rights of all states and shows full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the resolution of disputes.

Analysts expect Singapore to stick to its “honest broker” role as the coordinator for Asean-China dialogue.

“As the coordinator, Singapore’s priority is to facilitate Asean’s stable and fruitful relations with China,” said Dr Tang.

Professor Tan See Seng, deputy director and head of research at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’s Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, added that recent Chinese criticisms of Singapore are based on the erroneous perception that Singapore is an ally of US that is bent on containing China’s rise.

“This simply does not make sense, not where tiny Singapore financially invests more in humongous China than vice versa,” he said, adding that Singapore was one of the first to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and support its One Belt One Road initiative.

Prof Tan noted that Singapore’s longstanding ties with the US stem from the Republic’s belief that the Asia-Pacific region’s continued prosperity and security depend on the existence of a stable regional balance of power.

In Washington, US officials have sought to play down the prospect of a split in its alliance with the Philippines, partly because it is still unclear whether Mr Duterte’s rhetoric will actually translate into policy changes.

The US has not received any request to curtail programmes, reduce cooperation, cut aid or sever ties, the US Embassy in Manila said this week.

Experts say that a one-year notice period is needed for the termination of 10-year Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed two years ago, as well as the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty signed in 1951.

A move to cut defence ties would be a major blow to the US.

Denying Americans access to the five Philippines bases could further Beijing’s goal of control of the South China Sea and complicate American military strategy in the region, observers said.

“The Philippines’ actions would contribute to the consolidation of China’s presence in the Spratly Islands, in particular, and South-east Asia in general,” said Prof Thayer, who noted that this would ironically impact the Philippines most as it would not be able to deter China or any other power from encroaching on its island territories.

With the US welcoming a new President to the White House early next year, what Mr Duterte does next will likely factor in the new administration’s calculations on the pivot to Asia, though the US has broader considerations to take into account.

“The Asia pivot is driven by growing US economic, political and security interests in the region,” said 
Ms Bonnie Glaiser, a Chinese foreign policy and security expert at CSIS.

“Duterte’s anti-American sentiments will not reduce the US’ commitment to the region. They may, however, affect the US’ ability to implement it. But it is early days yet.”

Some analysts are also sanguine about the implications of Philippines’ embrace of China, pointing out Vietnam’s current approach to Beijing, which combines deference with resistance, and avoids reliance on a single power.

“Even prior to the emergence of Duterte, Asean was facing challenges forging consensus. I don’t expect Asean members to fall like dominos and align themselves with China,” said Ms Glaiser.

“All of them want to get economic benefits from Beijing, while retaining flexibility and independence in political issues … I believe US-Asean ties will remain strong because all of China’s neighbours want a counterbalance to its growing power.”

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