Since coming to power in June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made global headlines, a rarity for national leaders in South-east Asia.
His comments on his country’s relations with major powers – the US, China, Japan and Russia – have been extraordinary for their divergence from conventional wisdom.
Now the time has come for him to demonstrate his leadership finesse in representing the region.
The Philippines is the incoming chair of Asean, succeeding Laos, which has done a good job despite limited resources and modest expectations.
In contrast, the Philippines has the most outspoken leader in Asean and expectations are high that it will raise the bloc’s profile to a new level in the year ahead as it takes over the rotating duty at the helm.
Adding to this sense is the fact that the chairmanship coincides with the association’s 50th anniversary.
Manila has indicated it is ready for the task, even conceiving the sweeping, snappy new theme “Partnership for changes, engaging the world”.
It’s clear that whatever the Philippines has in mind for its tenure as Asean chair will have to take into account the historic importance of this milestone, coming at a time when the region is facing serious challenges.
Several agenda items stand out as being the most critical.
Firstly, the Philippines will give top priority to making Asean a people-centred, peopled-oriented community.
The Asean Economic Community has entered its second year and Manila must guide decisions to establish greater equality between the wealthy and powerful and those citizens who enjoy less prosperity.
Asean has to be more inclusive than it is now, fostering participation by all stakeholders regardless of background and connections.
The region’s leaders must forge or improve alliances with civil-society organisations and work towards a common cause that benefits all – one of the founding objectives of the association.
Second, comprising more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines will understandably emphasise regional cooperation on maritime security.
Due to worrying disputes over territory in the South China Sea, it will have eager listeners as it proposes fresh initiatives.
It is fortunate that Duterte has already sought to reduce tensions by travelling to Beijing and acceding to bilateral talks on the matter rather than China-Asean negotiations.
Malaysia and Brunei have followed suit in their own sovereignty issues with China and Vietnam appears to be conducting discreet consultations.
If these countries can achieve fair and peaceable resolutions in their conflicts and Beijing agrees to abide by the rule of maritime law, Asean as a whole benefits.
And the signs are good.
Already Manila and Beijing have agreed that the Scarborough Shoals, over which they’ve been at loggerheads, should become a marine park protected by a ban on commercial fishing in the area.
The Philippines might be able to offer its neighbours something else.
The country has often been pummelled by natural disasters, chiefly tropical cyclones and typhoons, and yet the Filipino spirit of fighting against daunting odds has always won the day.
In such resiliency other nations can learn a valuable lesson.
It is to be hoped that Duterte prods Asean to be better prepared for natural calamities, with a mechanism in place for a region-wide response to incidents wherever they might occur.
That’s what neighbours are for.
Finally, with a garrulous maverick like Rodrigo Duterte acting as the face of Southeast Asia in the coming year, we might expect this small brotherhood of nations to face the world less shyly, more assertively, and find new ways to link with the international community.
With clear direction and strong leadership, Asean can move forward as one voice.
The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 media.