BANGKOK (Reporting ASEAN) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte knows the strategic value of his country very well. Since he came to power in July after a landslide election victory, he has been playing high-octane power politics – something that has been absent in Southeast Asia for decades.
Duterte has been making myriad comments on domestic and foreign policy issues. Of all of his off-the-cuff opinions, it is the one he has made about the nature of Philippine-US relations that caught on, and continues to rage, like a forest fire.
Duterte said he would like to see his country reducing its dependence on the US in all aspects, particularly on security matters. Although he used the word “separation” from the US, he later clarified he did not mean breaking off diplomatic ties. However, he reiterated this line of thinking during his October visit to Japan.
Duterte’s comments in Beijing, which he visited before Japan, rattled decision-makers in Washington DC, who thought they were a bluff coming in the wake of US criticism on his tough campaign against illegal drugs. It then became clear to them that the former mayor of the Philippines’ southern Davao City was dead serious in restructuring one of the most important bilateral ties in the region.
Apparently, as Duterte sees it, the 65-year-old security alliance between the Philippines and its former colonial power will over time evolve into a different form of cooperation.
But with Donald Trump becoming the new US president after this month’s election, it remains a big question mark whether he would continue to support the traditional idea of an alliance system.
After Duterte’s visit to China, Philippine relations with China have improved dramatically despite the July award by The Hague-based Permanent Arbitration Court (PAC) on the South China Sea, which favored Manila. Both sides did not discuss the verdict, but they chose to dwell instead on future cooperation and joint development in the disputed areas in the South China Sea.
Lately, in fact, Filipino fishermen have been able to go back and fish in the disputed zone in Scarborough Shoal. Beijing and Manila have confirmed this as well.
By addressing maritime disputes bilaterally with China, Duterte has done what his predecessor failed to do — return to ASEAN’s long-held position that conflicting parties over territorial sovereignty issues must be settled bilaterally and that other aspects of joint cooperation can be done under the framework of ASEAN-China cooperation.
For the past six years, the government of ex-President Benigno Aquino III had pursued its own isolationist policy by seeking support solely from the US, in the process ignoring ASEAN diplomacy. As such, Manila was not able to develop close leadership rapport with other ASEAN leaders. In fact, the Philippines’ decision to go the arbitration route over China’s moves in the South China was done without consultation with ASEAN. That helps explain why ASEAN as a group did not issue any statement over the Arbitration Court’s verdict. Instead, each ASEAN member-state issued its own reaction and directly or indirectly referred to the outcome of the legal action.
At the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane in September, the grouping’s leaders decided to put emphasis on the respect of rule of law and diplomatic process as well as the UN Law of the Sea as pacifist means to settle the disputes in South China Sea. ASEAN and China also agreed to accelerate the drafting process related to the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea. The COC framework is expected to be completed by mid-2017.
Duterte’s leadership of his country is also coinciding with the Philippines taking on the rotating ASEAN chairmanship in 2017. It is a significant event, as ASEAN will commemorate its 50th anniversary since its establishment in 1967. At the ceremony marking the handing over of the ASEAN chairmanship, Duterte pledged to promote the association’s centrality and cooperation.
By reducing tensions with China over the maritime disputes these past months, Manila has contributed to the strengthening of China-ASEAN cooperation on the eve of the 25th anniversary of their relationship.
If this trend continues, other claimants would also take advantage of improved China-Philippine relations to work on the settlement and management of their own disputes. Malaysia’s latest move in cozying up with China to settle their maritime conflict is a good case in point.
With the Philippines’ return to ASEAN’s embrace and its leadership of ASEAN through the next year, its role would be crucial in balancing ASEAN’s engagement with major powers contesting for influence in the region.
With lesser tension all around, and if the status quo in the South China Sea persists, it would be extremely difficult for the US to find good reason to enhance its presence and monitoring efforts along the sea-lanes of communication in those waters. Again, however, it remains to be seen how the Trump administration would deal with the maritime quagmire in South China Sea.
For the time being, all claimants in the South China Sea dispute are pursuing self-restraint and maintaining the status quo followed the PAC verdict. This provides them good space to work out their differences, and at the same time identify areas of joint development and cooperation. (END/Reporting ASEAN – Edited by Johanna Son)