The 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers' summit hosted by Cambodia in 2012 was said to be the critical turning point for Southeast Asia's disagreement on the South China Sea (SCS) as for the first time since its inception in the 1960s, ASEAN member-states were not able to come up with a Joint Communiqué at the end of a Summit. Since then, and due to continued strategic posturing by the relevant parties in the SCS, the divisive issue has become a major concern at every ASEAN-led regional dialogue mechanism where political and security matters may be discussed.
In recent months, a lot has been said with the way the Philippines has been handling its ASEAN Chairmanship, especially in regard to the SCS. For instance, at the 30th ASEAN Summit last April, many were disappointed, locally and internationally, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s Chairman Statement as it allegedly reflected a “China First” policy and “ASEAN Partiality” by locking out of consideration the mentioning of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling which went against China’s claims of “historic rights,” nine-dash-line, and land reclamation legitimacy in the SCS, thereby defaulting on the diplomatic opportunity, as host, to rally ASEAN and press China to uphold international legal norms and exercise self-restraint over the disputed sea.
The Duterte Factor
Duterte’s “independent foreign policy,” which remarkably, coincides with the Philippines’ 2017 ASEAN Chairmanship. With the Philippines as Chair, three distinct agendas may be observed: the conventional ASEAN agenda, the Duterte agenda, and the perennial SCS agenda. The latter two arguably reveal how Duterte places his brand of leadership on ASEAN and how his independent foreign policy continues to indirectly operate, which can be seen in the way ASEAN has changed gears towards China and the SCS.
First, the traditional ASEAN agenda, by default, mandates the ASEAN host country of the year to continuously follow-up and make progress on previously agreed upon initiatives such as the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, ASEAN Integration Work Plan III, and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, among other consensus.
Second, it is notable that Duterte’s domestic agenda of combating organized crime and the “war on drugs” have officially been endorsed to become part of ASEAN’s regional agenda. Duterte’s effort was manifest in that in his tours to various Southeast Asian nations, he repeatedly emphasized that there ought to be a “drug-free ASEAN.”
Third and most contentious, is the resonance of the SCS issue on the ASEAN agenda. On this aspect, Duterte’s SCS policy, China policy, US policy, and by extension, ASEAN policy, are ostensibly driven by his foreign policy rebalancing that is patently divergent from that of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. During the time of Aquino, there was greater reliance on legalpolitik and alliance build-ups with respect to the assertion of maritime and sovereign rights in the SCS.
Duterte as ASEAN Chair does not see pushing China on the SCS a core priority or strategic option.
This was evident when the Philippines opted to bring China to the PCA at The Hague and strove to strengthen defense relations with its traditional security partners (United States, Japan, Australia) as cornerstones of the government’s China strategy. Correspondingly, the said partner countries made steadfast statements of support in relation to the primacy of the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the SCS.
However, in a sudden reversal of foreign policy agenda, the Philippines, with the ascendancy of Duterte, became mistrustful of US regional agenda and security insurance policy, shelved the SCS issue by disapproving of US prodding to flaunt the PCA ruling, and opted to bilaterally manage the disputes and pursue broader cooperation with China.
Institutional Behaviors of Aquino and Duterte
Not only in bilateral foreign policy have there been stark differences between Aquino and Duterte, but also in their institutional strategies toward ASEAN. With Aquino, the Philippines repeatedly raised the SCS issue and intensely lobbied at ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM+), ASEAN-Plus Three (APT) Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) to form a unified diplomatic front and collective voice vis-à-vis China.
Under Duterte, these were absent and a low-key approach was advanced that preceded a drastic change in the diplomatic and political mood in Sino-ASEAN relations just as it did in Sino-Philippine relations. Some had maintained that it is because of Duterte’s conciliatory precursors that ASEAN-China relations have also warmed up. Consequently, relative stability was achieved and a major risk of hostility was avoided in the SCS, particularly between China and the Philippines. Evidently, the conflicted multilateral policies of both Philippine presidents concerning dispute management and resolution of the SCS demonstrate that their strategies have had broader regional operational and strategic implications.
For Duterte, his bilateral approach toward China and the “US Factor” both largely figure in his policy decisions in ASEAN. This is because, similar to his bilateral pronouncements and attitude towards China, Duterte as ASEAN Chair does not see pushing China on the SCS a core priority or strategic option. And akin to his domestic underdog statements of saying that the Philippines is incapable of challenging China militarily, he likewise did mention that the Philippines, together with other ASEAN nations, would only be at a strategic disadvantage in thwarting China’s militarization of the artificial islands in the SCS which thus renders a protest against Beijing’s actions to no avail.
The second marked reason is that Duterte continues to display contempt for the American superiority complex and interventionism on his domestic policy. This is why as ASEAN Chair, comparable to his rhetoric as Philippine president, he strongly reiterates that the ASEAN political norms of non-intervention, mutual respect, and sovereign equality be strictly observed. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Duterte also expressed aversion to the US-led economic regionalism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and indicated instead his preference to accelerate the China-favored Regional Comprehensive and Economic Partnership (RCEP) process — a measure that was also in direct opposition to Aquino’s TPP accession policy.
The Limits of Duterte’s ASEAN Policy
In spite of Duterte’s different stance from Aquino, his government continues to push for the expedition of a binding China-ASEAN Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS, as illustrated in the recent 50th AMM that was held in Manila. Further, the latest joint statement issued by the ASEAN Ministers exhibits the limits of Duterte’s soft multilateral approach toward China, owing mainly to institutional pressures from other member-states such as Vietnam who have pushed for the reinstitution of stronger statements such as “non-militarization and self-restraint” and the avoidance of “activities in the area [South China Sea] which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability.”
With the Philippines to host other ASEAN-related meetings in the coming weeks and the EAS in November, various issues may surface and more institutional bargaining may continue to ensue, depending on how facts on the ground unfold or whatever unilateral actions by the relevant countries are made. One thing though is for certain: the “Duterte Factor” will be pivotal in shaping the succeeding agenda of ASEAN and its engagement and socialization posture towards the US and China.