President Rodrigo Duterte’s conciliatory approach toward China has reduced tensions in the South China Sea and is a positive development for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), two foreign policy experts said.
The de-escalation of tensions comes as the Philippines assumes chairmanship of Asean in 2017, coincidentally also the organization’s 50th anniversary. This de-escalation is likely to have a positive effect on the country’s chairmanship and on Asean-China ties, said Dr. Tang SiewMun and Prof. Wang Gungwu.
Tang heads the Asean Studies Center at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Wang is a historian and chairman of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.
Departing from his predecessor’s hardline stance, Duterte rekindled warm relations with China and agreed to play down the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which favored the Philippine position in the maritime dispute over some areas in the South China Sea claimed by six countries, four of them Asean members.
“I think all in all, Asean-China relations are on a better footing,” Tang said. “I think President Rodrigo Duterte deserves a lot of credit for de-escalating, changing the narrative.”
Tang added that the mood in Asean has changed.
“I think China no longer fears that the Philippines would use the chairmanship as a platform to further its SCS agenda. I think it’s all positive for China and Asean because we don’t want the 50th anniversary to be defined by a break in relations between Asean and China because of the SCS,” he said.
Wang said China is very happy that Duterte is saying what he is saying about China and not embarrassing China by highlighting the arbitral judgment.
But the two experts also said they are wary about how the Philippines will balance the interests between and among Asean and dialogue partners.
“As the chair, not just the Philippines but every chair, the first priority is to separate the national issues and national priorities from regional priorities,” Tang said.
“The whole notion of Asean centrality rests on Asean’s door being open to all major powers and to be relevant to all major powers which means equal engagement with everybody, that’s the core,” he added.
Tang stressed the importance of understanding Asean’s collective interest, and that majority of Southeast Asian countries have warmer and closer security ties with the US and that is part of their history, just like Philippines.
But Asean’s proximity to China has brought about closer economic ties, which is naturally how trade relationships function.
Wang said being neutral will not be easy. He warned of the possibility of Asean being forced to side with either one of the superpowers, US or China, if the SCS issue is not handled well. The real interest of ASEAN, he said, was to have the power to say yes or no to both together, as one voice, but that would be very difficult.
“As long as Duterte does not say too many outrageous things, they can handle it,” Wang said. “Don’t forget the foreign ministry professionals in 10 countries know each other very well. They are the ones that keep Asean going, the ones that can keep it under control. The leaders can do what they like, but the 10 sets of professionals from the foreign ministry of all member states are holding Asean together.”
Tang said Duterte brings a different “spark” in Asean that is positive. “Here you have a person who speaks his mind. We need this kind of leadership spark to give us the impetus to rethink what Asean is,” he said.
Duterte is said to have made quite an impact when he visited various Asean capitals. He had a light moment with the King of Cambodia, did karaoke diplomacy with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, shared durian and nasilemak with the Singapore leader. Tang said this speaks volumes about the popularity of Duterte, and of the message he conveys, not just in the Philippines but in the region as well.
To be continued