The View From Asia

Asean under Duterte... hmm

Two writers explore the challenges for the regional grouping as it turns 50 in a year when it will be chaired by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been lately leaning towards China and away from the United States. Here are excerpts.

New chair's views on Asean under close scrutiny

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation, Thailand

As an eventful year comes to an end, the region is focusing on the role Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will play in Asean.

As the new chair of the group, Mr Duterte must represent Asean as a forceful and unified voice.

He will have to preside over a dozen summits that he cannot miss next year.

There will be two separate Asean summits - the 30th and 31st - next year. The first, in Manila in April, will be with his Asean colleagues, then the second will take place at Clark Air Base on Luzon Island, in early November. The latter will involve a dozen related summits between Asean and its dialogue partners, including the United Nations.

Meetings with major powers, particularly with China and the United States, will be among the most important functions.

Given the dramatic improvement of Philippine-China relations in recent months, there is no doubt Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will join the year-end summit with other dialogue partners.

But a big question is whether the newly elected President Donald Trump will be bothered to come to the region and attend the fifth Asean-US Summit and 12th East Asia Summit at Clark Air Base.

Throughout next year, the chair will be busy organising meetings for at least 14 ministerial talks, 29 involving senior officials and 60 working group sessions involving the whole gamut of Asean affairs.

Therefore, Mr Duterte's views on Asean from now until the end of next year will be closely scrutinised.

So far, he has not made any major announcements about Asean and its agenda, except at the Asean summit during the chairmanship's handover ceremony from Laos in September. There, he pledged to "highlight Asean as a model of regionalism and a global player with the interest of the people at its core".

The Philippines will be chair to Asean during its 50th birthday.

Expectations are naturally very high that the current chair and its outspoken president will raise the grouping's profile to another level.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Manila has an exciting theme for Asean - "Partnering for change, engaging the world" - with six broad objectives: a "people-oriented and people-centred" Asean; peace and stability in the region; maritime security and cooperation; inclusive, innovation-led growth; a resilient Asean; and Asean as a model of regional and global involvement.

Positive changes will materialise if the chair plays it right, because the six broad priorities set by Manila have the potential to strengthen Asean's identity as a rule-based organisation and bring all its members closer together.

Most importantly, the Philippines wants to put Asean on the global agenda in a constructive way, strengthening the overall Asean voice in the international community.

It will take time to gauge how well Mr Duterte's leadership style resonates within the Asean family.

In the past five months, he has made global headlines with his fresh and unconventional comments, especially those related to the major powers, including the US, China, Japan and Russia.

His criticism of the US, a former colonising power, was the most controversial as he called for a break in relations as well as reduced security cooperation with Washington.

Fortunately, the current US-Philippine cooperation remains unchanged as any policy shift would have serious ramifications for overall Asean security in the months and years to come.

However, his new policy towards China and the handling of the South China Sea disputes have quickly become his signature diplomacy.

It remains to be seen how Mr Duterte's leadership will shape and influence the issues of peace and stability in the region.

Why Jakarta must be prepared to step up for Asean

A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Two years have passed since Mr Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was sworn in as the seventh President of the Republic of Indonesia.

After a rocky and tumultuous start to his presidency, he has since grown in confidence, enjoying high approval ratings and winning praise from political experts.

Yet, for all these achievements, the government of Mr Joko continues to face questions about Indonesia's foreign policy.

Jakarta, it would seem, has taken a step back from its self-proclaimed regional leadership role of Asean.

This is most unfortunate, coming at a time of great uncertainty and instability in the Asean region.

Former tourism and trade minister Mari Pangestu recently identified four challenges to unity in Asean, which turns 50 next year: the slow recovery in the global economy; anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and anti-elite sentiment; disruptive technology; and urbanisation and demographic shifts.

Arguably, a more pressing and immediate challenge is that of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose country assumes the chairmanship of Asean next year.

Since taking office, Mr Duterte has taken his country's war on drugs to the extreme, with some 3,600 people killed.

He also insulted US President Barack Obama when announcing Manila's "separation" from its long-time ally for a realignment of the Philippines' "ideological flow" with that of China.

Certainly, the region has never before seen an Asean chair so openly siding with one major power over the others in the way it will when the Philippines takes over.

Even when Cambodia - often accused of being a Beijing "puppet" - chaired the association in 2012, it at least attempted to maintain an impression of neutrality.

That Mr Duterte will most likely not even pretend to be non-partisan in the contestation of major powers is problematic, as it shakes one of the core purposes of Asean; purposes that have not only helped to bind Asean's 10 member states together but also in their relations with the wider region.

The notion of Asean centrality that the association has worked so hard for the major powers to recognise will thus be seriously undermined, not least because it depends heavily on Asean's ability to be an impartial and honest broker that bridges all the different powers in the region.

Clearly this will no longer be the case when the openly pro-China, anti-US Duterte takes the helm of Asean.

If 2012 was a historic setback for Asean that called into question the association's credibility, one can only wonder what will happen next year.

It is in this context that Mr Joko's foreign-policy disinterest becomes worrying.

In a period when Indonesia no longer sees Asean as "the" cornerstone of its foreign policy, will Indonesia still be prepared to step in and expend diplomatic capital to maintain Asean unity like it did in 2012?

Will Jakarta be willing to reassure Asean's concerned dialogue partners of the association's objectivity in order to ensure Asean remains central in the regional architecture?

In short, will Indonesia take up its primus inter pares (Latin for first among equals) role in Asean and give the region a clear sense of direction and leadership in the post-Asean Community 2015 era?

There should be no doubt that the fates of Indonesia and Asean are intertwined. As the saying goes, Bersama Indonesia, Asean akan kuat. Bersama Asean, Indonesia akan maju (With Indonesia, Asean will be strong. With Asean, Indonesia will progress).

We must therefore not allow any threats to Asean unity and centrality, whether they come from the contest between major powers, a maverick Asean chairman, or even Mr Joko's foreign-policy disinterest.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Asean under Duterte... hmm'. Print Edition | Subscribe