The Asian Voice

Duterte's wild ideas on expanding Asean: The Nation columnist

Duterte speaking during a press conference at the end of Association of Souteast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders' summit in Manila on April 29, 2017.
Duterte speaking during a press conference at the end of Association of Souteast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders' summit in Manila on April 29, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Kavi Chongkittavorn

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - With the Philippines chairing the regional block, Asean has never had a dull moment. Philipppine President Rodrigo Duterte has lived up to his country's pronounced theme of "Partnering with the region, engaging the world".

But the problem is, he has gone too far in supporting Turkey and Mongolia to become members of Asean.

Having made such an incredible proposal, it remains to seen that in the next 173 days at the helm, what sorts of things he would commit on behalf of Asean. If his logic works, the grouping could become a large regional organisation that goes beyond any fault lines.

Seriously, for the time being, both Turkey and Mongolia cannot become members of Asean despite the goodwill of the chairman.

Mr Duterte had his good reasons for saying that these two countries are a part of Asia and should not be discriminated against. Myanmar State Councillor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi had to ask him if he had taken geographical factors into consideration.

Quite frankly, before Mr Duterte met with the Turkish and Mongolian leaders, these two countries had never shown any interest in joining Asean. Turkey might aim to become a dialogue partner and has been working hard with Malaysia for quite some time.

Turkey's former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu pushed really hard to let his country join Asean as a sectoral dialogue partner. That explained why Turkey acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Hanoi as early as 2010. But there was no consensus.

However, at this juncture, regional and international environments have already changed, especially those related to the major powers and the Middle East, including the conflict in Syria and Turkey's high-profile involvement.

Once upon a time, Ankara was very high on the list as a sectoral partner of Asean, as it was poised to join the European Union (EU). But that continued to drag on and did not happen.

Earlier, Asean also perceived Turkey as the bridge between Asia and Europe and a gateway to the Middle East, North Africa as well as the EU - potentially a huge market for Asean products. Furthermore, this Nato-member country was seen back then as a moderate Muslim county. However, recent developments in Turkey and the rise of strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogen has sent chills down the spine of many in the region.

By nature, Asean members are risk-averse, so they want to stay clear of Turkey and its politics. Thailand is a good case in point.

After the bombing incident at the Erawan shrine in August 2015, which killed 20 and injured 125 people, the Thai authorities realised the danger of ill-intended elements that operated inside Turkey, which tried to sabotage and destabilise the country. In addition, the feud between Mr Erdogan and Islamic preacher Fethullah Gullen already has had serious spillover effects in Thailand and other Asean countries.

Turkey has pressured the Thai government to shut down the four schools operated by Mr Gullen's foundation.

In the case of Mongolia, this East Asian nation should have joined as a sectoral dialogue partner of Asean long ago.

Unfortunately, the first communist nation to democratise after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s has always been looking at the West.

It was inducted into several organisations based in the West. Mongolia should have been at the forefront of Asian democratic reform efforts.

Only in the past decade has it changed its orientation and moved closer to Asia.

Mongolia was among the five countries that had signed the TAC in 2005 and later joined the Asean Regional Forum. But it has not played any significant role. Of late, the country's strategic value has increased following the rise of China. With investment from South Korea and Japan coming, Mongolia wants to be integrated more economically with East Asia, especially under the framework of Asean+3 and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

There are ongoing efforts to get Mongolia as a member of EAS because of new security concerns within the region.

Mr Duterte is probably thinking outside the box on the future enlargement of Asean.

If that were the case, other dialogue countries such as Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Japan and South Korea would make the grade first.

All these countries have special free-trade arrangements with Asean and most importantly, they have contributed significantly to the advancement of Asean's economic, political and cultural communities.

Indeed, the next Asean chair would have a tough task to honour the commitments and other pledges made by the current chair.