The Philippines officially kicked off its chairmanship of Asean yesterday, with a pledge to stick to the group's core values as it seeks to weather new challenges amid a rising China, uncertainties in the United States and threats to European unity.
"The Philippines, as Asean chair, will remain steadfast in upholding the ideals and values we hold dear and working for the realisation of our aspirations," President Rodrigo Duterte said, as he led the launch ceremony in his southern home city of Davao.
He urged Asean's 10 member states to "renew their dedication to the valued purposes and principles stated in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, including non- interference, in promoting regional peace and stability through abiding respect for the rule of law".
"Now more than ever, it is time for a change through constructive engagements," he said.
The Philippines is assuming chairmanship of Asean as China expands its footprint in South-east Asia. China has dredged reefs and sand to build at least seven islands with military-grade runways and fortifications to cement its vast claims over the South China Sea. It also looms large in the economies of South-east Asia.
Under its former president Benigno Aquino, the Philippines had led efforts within Asean to push back against China.
But Mr Duterte has upended that policy, opting instead to rebuild ties with Beijing, as he pivots away from the US, the nation's traditional ally, over criticisms of his controversial anti-crime drive. Mr Duterte is determined not to antagonise China during the Philippines' chairmanship of Asean.
China's claims to three-fourths of this waterway, through which US$11 trillion (S$15.7 trillion) worth of trade passes each year, overlap with those of four Asean member states: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Philippines, however, will not bring to any Asean forum a ruling it won from an international tribunal striking down China's claims. "We are not going to raise this issue. There is really no useful benefit," said Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay.
Analysts say the Philippines is giving up leverage, as Asean chair, to get China to sit down and deal with Asean as an equal. "At the end of the day, there will be no protest if China does something. The overall effort right now is to be in line with China's position, which then will cause a problem with the unity of Asean," said defence analyst Jose Antonio Custodio.
Outside the South China Sea dispute, Mr Duterte is setting priorities in areas where Asean has already reached a broad consensus: health and nutrition; social protection of women, the elderly and disabled; focus on small and medium-sized enterprises; and sharing of resources in dealing with natural calamities and climate change.
Mr Duterte is also bringing his war on crime to Asean.
"The Philippines, during its chairmanship of Asean, will pursue concentrated efforts in combating illicit drugs. As chair, we will be primarily guided by our leaders' affirmation… to their commitment to a zero-tolerance approach in realising a vision of a drug-free Asean," said Mr Yasay.
Mr Yasay said the Philippines will also push to combat the rise of radicalism, piracy and kidnapping.