By all indications and in many respects, the Philippine chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), capped by this week’s 31st Asean Summit and Related Summits, was an unqualified success.
The agreements reached in Manila this week – on the protection of migrant workers, the launch of negotiations on a sea code of conduct, and new trade deals, among others – belie Western characterizations of Asean as a mere talk shop.
These agreements dovetailed with the six priority themes announced by President Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippines took over the Asean chairmanship this year: “a people-oriented and people-centered Asean; peace and stability in the region; maritime security and cooperation; inclusive, innovation-led growth; resiliency; and Asean as a model of regionalism, a global player.”
A concrete effort to bridge the policy gap and allow the citizens of Asean countries to benefit from the region’s integration efforts was the “Consensus Document on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers” that would benefit more than 210,000 Filipino workers in the region.
The document upholds fair treatment of migrant workers with respect to gender and nationality, provides for visitation rights by family members, prohibits confiscation of passports and overcharging of placement or recruitment fees, protects against violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, regulates recruiters for better protection of workers and respects their right to fair and appropriate remuneration and benefits and their right to join trade unions and associations.
Under Duterte as this year’s summit host, Asean continued to be the most important venue for regional affairs, preserving the core tenet of “Asean centrality” even with the regional players – the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India – on the table.
The Manila summit saw US President Donald Trump introducing Washington’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, consolidating its alliances with India, Japan and Australia to check China’s superpower ambitions.
This complements the principle of Asean centrality, which has also prevented China from overriding Asean. China agreed on Monday with the regional bloc to finally start long-delayed negotiations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The new code, albeit non-legally binding, promises to be more extensive than the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has been largely ineffective.
Also this week, Hong Kong became the sixth economy to sign a free trade agreement with Asean (after mainland China, Japan, Korea, India and Australia-New Zealand), removing the final barrier to closer economic ties between the Asean and China.
Now marking its 50th year, Asean has successfully evolved as an intergovernmental organization. It is no longer a reactionary response of newly independent, loosely allied states to the Cold War.
Rather, Asean is a political security, sociocultural and most important, an economic community of 10 nations collectively representing Asia’s third largest economy and the world’s third largest market. It is clearly a force to reckon with, even for rival powers seeking to dominate it.