The Philippines is only a few months away from taking over the Asean chairmanship, but is already ruffling feathers within the regional organisation with its pronouncement of a strategic shift towards China and away from the United States.
Speaking at a Philippine-China business forum in Beijing on Oct 20, President Rodrigo Duterte rocked the region when he announced the Philippines' realignment with China's "ideological flow". He even added that he might also "go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, Philippines and Russia".
Mr Duterte reinforced those sentiments when he announced his "separation from the United States" at the same forum. The maverick President has since clarified his position to mean that the Philippines will henceforth undertake an independent foreign policy and "need not dovetail" with that of the US. The clarification did little to assuage fears of the possibility of a break in Philippine-US relations and instil confidence in Manila's trustworthiness as a strategic ally in the eyes of the Americans.
In reality, Mr Duterte may find it problematic to completely break ranks with the US, given the strong affinity it enjoys in the Philippines. A Social Weather Stations poll last month put public trust in the US at the high figure of 66 per cent. However, Mr Duterte's ability to tap into residual anti-American sentiments in the Philippines should not be underestimated.
To be fair, the Philippines has every right as a sovereign nation to alter its strategic alignment. Indeed, Manila's rapprochement with Beijing has reaped a bountiful harvest. Mr Duterte's four-day state visit to China raked in US$15 billion (S$21 billion) in investments and an additional US$9 billion in credit facilities. That is a far cry from the US$5.7 billion in net foreign direct investment the Philippines received last year.
Mr Duterte's turn to China might have paid off handsomely in economic terms, but these gains may come at a high political cost not only to the Philippines but also to Asean.
The Philippines' explicit and very public pronouncement of its alignment with China, and possibly Russia as well, runs counter to Asean's cardinal principle of "not taking sides" vis-a-vis the major powers. "Not taking sides" does not mean neutrality or turning a blind eye to regional and international affairs. On the contrary, this principle has allowed Asean member states to have a credible voice in the international community through principle-based independent foreign policies.
This fundamental Asean principle also allows the 10 member states to engage in mutually beneficial relations with all the major powers without the encumbrances of their rivalries.
Staying above the fray of major-power politics and rivalries has enabled Asean member states to maintain their autonomy and avoid the suffocating predicament of absorption into the American, Chinese or Japanese sphere of influence. This survival strategy has served Asean well since its establishment in 1967, but it is now under threat.
The thought of Asean being split into "pro-China" and "pro-US" camps may have sounded outlandish at the beginning of the millennium, but China's looming shadow over the Cambodian and Lao economies and Mr Duterte's new-found affinity with Beijing make this worrisome proposition an increasing possibility. For a great many in the region, Mr Duterte's open courtship of China and Russia and his concomitant dismissive hand towards the US bring back haunting memories of the Cold War.
A fractured Asean will give rise to a Cold War-like split that serves neither Beijing's nor Washington's interests and cause irreparable harm to the regional organisation. Would Asean's larger strategic goals not be better served by working with the major powers rather than helping them draw their battle lines in the region?
Mr Duterte's actions have consequences beyond his home country, especially when the Philippines takes on its duties as Asean chair next year as the grouping celebrates its golden jubilee. A chair's apparent favour towards one dialogue partner over others is bound to generate distrust and undermine Asean's centrality. Asean can be effective in playing the delicate role of managing major-power relations only as long as it is able to maintain its impartiality and commitment to keeping the region open and inclusive. The Philippines' realignment to China serves to turn Asean centrality on its head.
On balance, the Philippines' rapprochement with China is a positive development for Manila and the region. The initiation of direct talks on the South China Sea dispute may pave the way for the lowering of tensions and de-escalate the conflict. However, in its eagerness to strike a deal with China, Asean's incoming chair should not lose sight of its regional commitments, keeping in mind Asean's overriding interest in preserving and upholding the sanctity of international law as the governing principle of international affairs.
Above all, Mr Duterte should realise that in about two months, he will be wearing two important hats. His first and paramount duty is, of course, to the people of the Philippines, but he should also take care of his other hat which embodies the hopes of 635 million South-east Asians, who will look to him for leadership and inspiration to drive Asean forward beyond the golden jubilee. Can he reconcile the Philippines' interest with that of the demands and obligations of its Asean membership?
Expectations for the Philippines to fly the Asean flag will be very high in the regional organisation's golden jubilee year, but also because of the fact that the Philippines is one of Asean's five founding members. At a time when Asean appears to be floundering without a clear sense of direction and leadership, especially in political-security matters, all eyes will be on Manila to step up to the plate. Above all, there is higher expectation of the Philippines as a founding member to uphold and champion Asean's principles and norms. However, it remains to be seen if Asean is a priority for the Duterte administration.
- The writer is head of the Asean Studies Centre at Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.