The Philippine Role in ASEAN’s Uncertain Future

by Philip Vincent Alegre / January 5, 2017 / Originally Posted at APPFI

Six months have already gone by of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The Southeast Asian region is left with questions as to what the future might hold when the Philippines takes the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017. Since President Duterte took office on June 30 of this year, he has issued, and his aides have retracted, several foreign policy pronouncements concerning the big powers in the region – China and the United States  — that could impact on ASEAN.

His predecessor President Benigno Aquino III’s foreign policy approach was outspoken in its criticism of China, and the Aquino administration won a case against China that it filed with an international arbitral panel to defend Philippine entitlements in the South China Sea. President Duterte, on the other hand, appeared to take a whole U-turn by re-establishing amicable ties with China and distancing itself from the US, in order to pursue an “independent foreign policy”.  It was during his visit to Beijing last October 18 to 21, that he announced the Philippines’ “separation” from the US in both military and economic terms. He also claimed that ‘US has lost’ and that the Philippines is now “realigning” with China.

ASEAN States Realigning

Prior to Duterte’s visit to China, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had also visited Beijing in September in what could be seen as an effort to mend ties with Beijing after the arbitral tribunal’s July ruling of China’s nine-dash line as illegal.

Shortly after Duterte, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also went to China on a 7-day official visit to strengthen ties, score a defense deal, and sign more economic agreements. Najib’s visit seemed to have been prompted by a massive corruption scandal which implicated him, and which resulted in the US Justice Department seizing more than $1 billion in U.S. assets purchased by Najib’s relatives and associates. Beyond this, Malaysia continues to explore what China has to offer as a rising, if not already risen, power. In his own meetings with China, Duterte received a whopping $24 billion in investment and loan pledges, while Najib signed business MOUs worth RM 143.64 billion (about $32 billion).

Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia are embroiled in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. With the spate of visits,  we could be seeing a geostrategic realignment of these ASEAN countries. Consequently, such actions may lead to a major shift in ASEAN’s big power relations from here onwards.

Philippine Role in ASEAN

During the Aquino administration, the Philippines had been the frontliner of all ASEAN claimant countries in the South China Sea against China. It was the most vocal in criticizing China for its actions, and took the boldest step ever of filing the arbitration case in 2013. The Philippines has been one of the long-standing and main security allies of the US in Southeast Asia, leading some to argue that despite being a weak state, Washington’s backing US provided Manila with more confidence to challenge Beijing. This has allowed other concerned ASEAN countries to ‘free-ride’ on the Philippines and ‘swim with the current’ in order to minimize their own risks while keeping China from being more aggressive and assertive in the South China Sea amidst its growing economic and military power.

In ASEAN, the Philippines was also the main member-state campaigning for the regional organization to unite and call out China for actions affecting ASEAN claimants. Should the Philippines under Duterte shift Philippine foreign policy and begin cozying up to China, no one will fill its role as ASEAN’s most assertive  claimant and China critic. As a result, it will be harder for other ASEAN countries to mount an effective challenge against China and in turn, those countries that were formerly critical of China would also recalibrate their own foreign policies to accommodate the regional power.

As Prashanth Parameswaran puts it, “If the Philippines suddenly adopts a much softer line on China and the South China Sea, it could see other Southeast Asian states also adopt a softer line, either because this is in line with their own traditional preference to downplay the issue or because they find it diplomatically difficult to get ahead of ASEAN’s most-forward-leaning claimant.”

2017 chairmanship of ASEAN will prove to be challenging as it will put the Philippines in a position where it could steer the whole ASEAN on various issues affecting the region, including the South China Sea disputes and big power dynamics in Southeast Asia.

Big Power Relations

The Philippines’ relationship with the US has seen much confusion since Duterte took over. Washington is a long-time ally of the country and arguably the top security partner of many states in the Southeast Asian region. The US has been helping the Philippines boost its military capability through various efforts such as capacity-building programs, joint exercises, and weapons training. Moreover, it has been a major provider of arms to the Philippines. However, criticisms  by the Obama government’s officials on his War on Drugs provoked Duterte to threaten to abrogate security agreements and to kick US troops out of the Philippines.

More recently, Donald Trump’s win in the recently-concluded US presidential elections may again have changed the tides. Duterte was reportedly the first among world leaders to have congratulated Trump. In early December, a seven-minute phone call took place between the two which was described by an aide as ‘very engaging.’ The two leaders invited each other to visit their countries.

Could Philippines-US relations get back on track following Trump’s election? The return to the normal state of relations could be a blow to Beijing if it hopes to steer the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN away from American influence. Trump’s election further adds to the uncertainty of the future.

In 2017, the world may be seeing a new phase of power relations as China will continue to court countries through its economic might and tempting offers like the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Philippines under Duterte could cast its lot with China, or it could continue to play a crucial role in US rebalance to Asia. More likely, it will hedge between the two big powers inasmuch as Duterte is more open to dealing with the US under Trump. US foreign policy under Trump, however, is yet to unfold as he only takes the helm of the US government in January 2017.

Where the Southeast Asian region is headed in relation to the big powers is still unknown, but major developments in early 2017 will likely give us a glimpse of the interesting times ahead.

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