MY apprehension, as the Philippines prepared to host the 30thAsean Leaders Meeting last week, was that President Duterte would find it difficult to persuade all the Asean heads of state and government to agree to a common decision to bring up the South China Sea dispute in the summit discussion, and to a final summit statement that would call on China to heed international law. The Asean rule that the association cannot adopt any initiative without consensus would defeat any effort to lead it toward any direction.
I imagined that it would be particularly hard to get Myanmar and Laos to go along with such decisions that affect Chinese interests. I also thought Malaysia might be a problem because Prime Minister Najib Razak was bailed out by China in his financial bind over a scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB, state fund.
The way things turned out, the tough nut to crack was persuading President Duterte as summit chairman to relent on his efforts to soften Asean opposition to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
It was the host, not the guests, who was the roadblock to a forthright summit statement.
Where is the firebrand?
Duterte lobbied ahead of the one-day Asean leaders meeting for much closer ties with China in spite of its sweeping claims to the strategic waterway.
He glossed over the fact that China has been turning reefs and shoals in the SCS into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there.
Most significant, DU30 was adamant in forbidding mention of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling last year, wherein the court ruled as illegal China’s claims to reefs and islets in the SCS on the basis of a nine-dash-line map, and recognized all the rights and claims of the Philippines to disputed territory. DU30 refused to claim the victory that had been won at so much expense and effort.
Ahead of the summit Duterte said the Philippines and other nations were helpless to stop China’s island building, so there was no point discussing it during the summit.
Many expected Duterte to be a firebrand at the summit, considering his reputation as a tough guy in the Philippine drug war, and his tough talk with foreign leaders like Barack Obama and the UN secretary general.
Everybody thought that the guy who declared a new, independent Philippine foreign policy, and separation from America shortly after his inauguration, would surely push to protest China’s expansionism and militarization in the SCS.
Imagine the shock of Asean leaders when they saw Duterte and Philippine officials carrying water instead for China.
The truth oozed out when the time came to draft the summit chairman’s statement, which would be released at the end of the meeting.
Asean chairman’s statement
It was generally expected that in keeping with DU30’s already announced position, the statement would not mention the UN tribunal’s ruling.
But diplomats from other Asean nations, unhappy with the intense Chinese lobbying of the summit host, sought to toughen up the chairman’s statement. Hot debates on the issue ensued in Manila.
One Asean diplomat told Agence France-Presse: “It can’t be seen that Asean has totally given in to Chinese pressure.”
The visitors remembered that the Philippines, during the time of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, had lobbied hard at Asean summits for the bloc to voice its strong opposition to Chinese expansionism, and the official statements at those events often reflected that the Philippines had filed a case with The Hague tribunal.
A plan evolved that Duterte’s chairman’s statement, which is meant to reflect the views of all Asean leaders, would be used to voice concern but not mention the ruling or China directly, according to a penultimate draft secured by one media organization.
China, through its ambassador to Manila, sought to weaken even this, said some delegates and diplomats. He wanted Asean to remove a reference to “respect for legal and diplomatic processes”, and it was taken out of the South China Sea section of the chairman’s statement.
Filipino diplomats said the phrase was important because “legal and diplomatic processes” encompassed the entire process of the filing of the case in the tribunal until its resolution.
The new draft statement reintroduced a call for no further “land reclamation and militarization” of the sea.
The re-inclusion of the reference to land reclamation and militarization meant that some ASEAN countries were not comfortable with total acquiescence to China.
Professor Richard Heydarian of De La Salle University says that the issue of militarization and reclamation in the SCS was mentioned at the Asean-US summit with former US President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California in February 2016, and also the same year in Laos, a known Chinese ally, when it hosted the Asean summit.
But now, in the final Asean chairman’s statement, issued a day after the talks in Manila, Asean leaders merely “took note of concerns expressed by some Leaders over recent developments in the area.”
“We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over-flight in and above the South China Sea,” the statement read.
One diplomat said Vietnam had insisted the references to the land reclamation and militarization be reintroduced.
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei also wanted a stronger statement than Duterte had planned, according to another member of an Asean delegation.
By late Saturday night, more than four hours after the summit ended, the chairman’s statement had yet to be released. Diplomats from visiting delegations told AFP that Duterte, as host, had the final say on the wording.
The summit was also closely watched for how Duterte, who shocked many with curse-laden tirades against the United States and other critics of his deadly drug war, would handle hosting his first major diplomatic event.
Signs of Chinese foreign policy
In the event, instead of looking like an independent and resolute leader, Duterte looked like one who was carrying water for China. The chairman’s statement bore all the signs of Chinese foreign policy, not of Asean’s independent thinking.
That President Duterte faced pushback from other Asean leaders is perhaps a hopeful sign for the regional association. That Duterte was steered to the end by the Chinese ambassador is a sad day for Philippine statecraft.
Duterte recovered some ground when President Trump called to extend him an invitation to visit the US.
Things will become more complicated when the Philippines hosts the East Asia Summit in November, as Trump. Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping all come to Manila.
Nobody will look like much carrying water for China before these notables.