Duterte's soft-pedalling on Beijing: Good for Manila, bad for Asean

Since his ascent to the presidency, Mr Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a remarkable reorientation in Philippine foreign policy. Promising an independent course that would "not be dependent on the United States", the tough-talking Filipino leader has downgraded military cooperation with Washington and taken a radically divergent approach to Beijing.

Just hours after his inauguration on June 30 last year, Mr Duterte promised not to "flaunt" his country's landmark arbitration case in the South China Sea to "taunt" China. Over the succeeding months, he prioritised the revival of frayed diplomatic ties with the Asian juggernaut to avoid conflict and entice large-scale Chinese infrastructure investments.

Against the backdrop of a burgeoning Sino-Philippine rapprochement, few expected Mr Duterte to take a tough stance on the South China Sea disputes during his tenure as the (rotational) chairman of Asean this year.

However, what caught most by surprise was the Filipino leader's determined effort to shield China against any criticism, whether directly or indirectly. As a result, Asean, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, risks fading into irrelevance amid festering maritime disputes in the region.

Although Asean operates on a consensus-based decision-making process, the chairman has significant prerogative in setting the regional agenda. Reports suggest that during the recent Asean summit in Manila, Mr Duterte not only declined to raise the Philippines' arbitration case, he also vetoed any reference to China's massive reclamation activities, which have given birth to a sprawling network of military facilities in the high seas.

Mr Rodrigo Duterte at last week's Asean Summit in Manila. The writer says the Filipino leader had shielded China from criticism at the summit, likely in hopes of concessions from Beijing during an upcoming visit there. While this serves the Philippines' interests, it could undermine Asean's cohesion. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

This resulted in a chairman's statement from the summit that took a softer stand on South China Sea maritime issues. Even the term "serious concern", which prominently appeared in previous Asean pronouncements, was dropped. By any measure, this was a slam-dunk diplomatic victory for Beijing, which has sought to court Mr Duterte by offering multibillion-dollar investment deals and the prospect of joint development agreements in contested waters.

Mr Duterte's soft-pedalling on the South China Sea issue likely pleased non-claimant countries such as Laos and Cambodia, which have contentiously avoided any diplomatic friction with China, a major economic benefactor, over sensitive territorial issues.


Yet, other member countries concerned about the trajectory of the maritime spats and Asean's centrality in shaping the regional security architecture were left unimpressed, if not disappointed.

In particular, Vietnam strongly advocated the inclusion of the reclamation activities as well as the troubling militarisation of the disputes (by China) in the final statement. Smaller claimant states are deeply worried about Beijing's growing ability to deploy advanced weaponry to artificially created islands - a potential prelude to the imposition of a de facto exclusion zone in the South China Sea.

Other claimant states, particularly Malaysia and Brunei, reportedly shared Vietnam's position.

A Filipino official lamented how the host country, which used to be among the most vociferous critics of China, is now "being lumped together with Cambodia and Laos in protecting Chinese interests (in Asean) at all costs".

Regional heavyweight Indonesia also pushed for a more robust Asean position on the issue. In the lead-up to the summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo argued that the "South China Sea is one of the issues that we need to solve immediately", urging member states to come up with a common stand.

Jakarta is not technically a claimant state, but it is worried about China's growing paramilitary presence as well as illegal fishing activities within Indonesian waters, particularly off the coast of the hydrocarbon-rich Natuna Islands.

Other major regional players, including Singapore, have also called for respect for international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and encouraged states to refrain from provocative actions in disputed waters.

To mollify critics at home and abroad, Mr Duterte promised to finalise the framework of a legally binding Code of Conduct before the end of the year.

His decision to block any robust Asean statement on the disputes, however, was likely due to an upcoming visit to Beijing, where the Filipino President is set to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the One Belt, One Road summit.

During his summit with Mr Xi, Mr Duterte will likely seek concessions from China in exchange for shielding the Asian powerhouse in multilateral forums as well as scaling back military cooperation with America in recent months. Mr Duterte will likely seek not only major trade and investment deals, but also explore a modus vivendi which will allow the Philippines to have easier access to contested waters and resources in the South China Sea.

While Mr Duterte's transactional approach may serve his country's national interest, it risks undermining Asean's internal cohesion and centrality as an engine of peaceful integration in the region.

  • The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines, and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, And The Struggle For The Western Pacific.
  • S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Duterte's soft-pedalling on Beijing: Good for Manila, bad for Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe