Should Asean issue a strong statement against China? Should Asean display solidarity against China? The bloc’s rhetoric on China has always been an enigma because it pertains to longstanding, unique Asean diplomatic approaches.
These are also fundamental questions that concerned senior officials tasked with drafting various Asean-related documents have to tackle whenever their ministers and leaders meet and discus external relations.
Given the media openness and access to government sources in the Philippines, it was not surprising at all that early reports were focused on drafts of Asean criticising China over its reported activities and island expansions. For insiders, that has been a pattern to display that Asean was not kowtowing China. At the Kunming meeting on the South China Sea dispute last year between Asean and China, there was a similar media spin showing disagreements within Asean over the grouping’s view of China through leaked draft documents. As a matter of routine, these drafts are discussed, rephrased and watered down before Asean leaders finally agree on the final version. In the end, even though the chair would have the final say, he has to take into the consideration the general consensus among his colleagues. The Philippines, as one of the founder members of the grouping, knows this crucial procedure.
During the Cambodian conflict, Asean members disagreed with each other over their draft joint communique, which were full of alternative phrases and words in brackets or italics. These too were often leaked to the media. The purpose of these drafts is to show each member’s early position before they are pruned as part of the consensus making. That kind of give and take has served Asean. The only aberration happened in 2012 when Asean failed to issue a joint communique after their annual meeting in Cambodia.
The current Asean chair, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, was dominant at the first of two summits to mark the jubilee celebrations of Asean on the regional political and security issues. Like it or not, he has already put a personal stamp on Asean’s overall engagement with dialogue partners, particularly on the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula.
Filipino scholars and analysts felt a bit uneasy with Duterte’s personal diplomacy and criticised him for downplaying the South China Sea conflict. They said Philippines had lost the opportunity to make its presence felt and take a leading role in Asean under its tutelage. Most of them thought Philippines was soft-pedalling China for economic benefits and ignoring Asean’s collective interests much to the chagrin of other members.
Such impressions are quite common these days following the rise of China and its expansive economic development plans, including the Belt and Road Initiative, and other new financial arms such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the existing Export and Import Bank of China. After the verdict by the Permanent Arbitration Court on July 12, 2016, Philippine-China relations have not worsened as many experts had expected. On the contrary, now China and conflicting parties are discreetly trying to map out their solutions bilaterally to manage their delicate ties in ways that would not jeopardise the overall Asean-China strategic partnership. The chairman’s statement was a testament to this prevailing sentiment.
More than Asean officials would like to admit, at the Manila summit Duterte has created a new level playing field for the Philippines and Asean as a whole. The former mayor understands well the causes and effects of US and China’s competition in the region and moved ahead quickly above the curve. Unlike his predecessor Beningo Noynoy Aquino, Duterte rolls the dice himself, instead of depending on American hands. Under the US rebalancing policy toward Asia, the Philippines had served as a conduit for the US to strengthen its maritime surveillance.
That is no longer the case with Duterte, the Trump administration has yet to conduct its freedom of navigation and safety in the South China Sea. At Thursday’s meeting in Washington DC with Asean foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, stressed the importance of freedom of navigation with his Asean colleagues. At the 30th Asean-US senior official meeting, they also discussed the Chinese activities and the latest developments in the South China Sea. However, the Asean foreign ministers’ statement did not mention it while the US State Department’s statement released through spokesperson Heather Nauert highlighted these exchanges.
It must be noted here that from now on, North Korea’s nuclear ambition would occupy the top agenda among international issues at upcoming Asean-led security mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus. For the chair, it served an extremely useful purpose as all Asean and dialogue partners shared the same grave concerns of Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.
Since July 2010, this is the first time that the US and China have stopped squabbling over the South China Sea conflict openly and turned their attention to Asean and the common nuclear threats. The Asean statement on April 28 on North Korea was meant to score points from the US. However, it remains to be seen if Asean members would reconsider their relations with North Korea.
Duterte is now playing the big-league game by himself. In more ways than one, he is akin to Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, a mercurial leader, who often calls a spade a spade. Such leaders are highly visible in Southeast Asia these days. This is partly due to the US propensity to pass judgements against elected local governments in running their countries’ affairs, especially on issues related to human rights violation and non-democratic practices. Under the Trump administration, with his own flippancy and inconsistency, the US ability to take the moral high ground has been compromised. In effect, it has bolstered the emerging belief here that as part of his American First policy, Trump is willing to make deals at the highest levels with friends or foes.
However, one caveat would be in order. With Trump running the foreign policy from the White House, the nature and substance of diplomatic engagement adopted by the Obama administration will gradually evaporate. The downside is, as Trump’s habit of making telephone calls showed, he can pick at any nation, any issue at will, for good or the wrong reasons.
That helps explain why the chairman’s statement this year was vastly different from previous ones. Beyond Asean-related issues, only key international issues directly affecting the region were mentioned – the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, maritime security cooperation, terrorism and extremism. This time the situation in the Middle East was not included.