IN his latest foray abroad, President Rodrigo Duterte took the first steps toward developing what he has declared will be an “independent” foreign policy for the Philippines, by issuing a joint statement with our near neighbor Vietnam that the two countries would increase cooperation in a number of trade and security areas.
This is an encouraging development on several counts.
Much of the joint statement Duterte and Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang issued contained predictably vague descriptions of good intentions, the details of which will have to be worked out later. For example, part of the newest joint statement was devoted to simply reiterating the terms of a strategic partnership signed in November 2015 during the APEC summit in Manila, in which the two countries promised to “elevate the level and intensity of bilateral exchanges between the two countries,” and “harness advantages for common development and in pursuit of shared strategic interests.” Since that agreement, and others were signed during previous Philippine administrations, Presidents Tran and Duterte obviously felt it appropriate to review those and reassure their respective countries that they would continue to follow through with them.
Several new developments in the Philippines-Vietnam relationship did emerge from the latest meetings, however. The two countries made a stronger commitment to defending unimpeded commerce and improving stability in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), including using peaceful dispute resolution processes and pushing for a Code of Conduct governing activities in the disputed sea. These are good political developments with regard to the biggest foreign policy issue faced by the Philippines and the rest of the Asean, which the country will chair next year.
Other developments that will have a positive impact include implementing the Joint Commission on Maritime and Oceanic Affairs, which largely deals with management of fishing. This is a key area, because fishing, besides being a potential trigger for heightened tension in the disputed sea, is very important economically for both countries, and any agreement that may help to ensure the marine resources are shared fairly and in a sustainable way is positive progress.
The other key economic development promised by the joint statement was the two countries’ agreeing to “consider” signing mutual recognition agreements on quality control, management, and safety of agricultural and fisheries products. These mutual recognition agreements are, in fact, what should be prioritized by the policymakers in both countries who will be given the task of filling in the details of the wish list the joint statement represents.
One of the biggest obstacles to fully developing the Asean Economic Community (AEC) has been the reluctance of the 10 member nations to enter into mutual recognition agreements, which because of the way the Asean charter is put together, have to be done on a bilateral basis.
These agreements, which essentially say that one country recognizes the validity of certifications made in various areas – for example, food safety, or professional qualifications of workers – by other Asean countries, are necessary for expanded regional trade, cross-border employment, and investment.
For instance, the Asean aspiration to develop a regional financial market will not be possible without each country honoring the securities licenses of every other country’s brokers or investment instruments. Professionals like engineers, to use another example, cannot easily work in other Asean countries without mutual recognition of their credentials, which could reduce opportunities for cross-border investment in things like infrastructure projects.
Accomplishing mutual recognition agreements with Vietnam would be a big step forward, and the two presidents’ having made it a point to mention that this is at least being considered is encouraging. Vietnam is a growing economy that presents many opportunities for the Philippines, and its proximity should make it a natural economic and geopolitical partner. We appreciate that President Duterte has recognized this, and is helping to build a closer and more productive relationship with our neighbor.