Eyes on Philippines as it winds down stint at region’s helm

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By Maria Eloisa I. Calderon
Editor-at-Large

THE PHILIPPINES’ stint as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year is winding down: the bloc’s plenary today and the summit with dialogue partners tomorrow being President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s last hurrah before the world decides how Manila will go down in history as host to the club’s biggest party in half a century.

It’s not the spectacle that bears watching — for true to form, Mr. Duterte did not employ pomp in his diplomacy — but eyes are on whether the Philippines used its chairmanship to the hilt to push forward its stake in core interests such as the South China Sea and regional trade pacts.

Manila will be judged too on the basis of how it stayed faithful to the ASEAN way: a non-confrontational approach in resolving disputes.

The assessment so far is mixed, going by what diplomats and academics said.

ASEAN in NUMBERS

CHINESE LOBBY
In April, Manila drew criticism after a final version of the chairman’s statement — an outcome of the 30th ASEAN Summit — dropped references to “land reclamation and militarization” in the South China Sea.

Those terms were included in an unpublished draft dated April 28, but the statement issued on April 30 omitted them. Reuters had then cited two ASEAN diplomats having said that Chinese foreign ministry and embassy officials lobbied the Philippines “to keep Beijing’s contentious activities in the strategic waterway off ASEAN’s official agenda.”

“ASEAN members are happy now that the Philippines is being non-confrontational,” even Vietnam, which together with the Philippines was most openly at odds with China, an ASEAN diplomatic source told BusinessWorld over the weekend.

Before, ASEAN members had been “uncomfortable” about the Philippines’ foreign policy during the Aquino administration which brought the maritime dispute before the Hague court, he said, without discounting that the landmark ruling lays the foundation for Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan to also pursue their claims.

The Philippine won that case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruling last year that China has no historic rights over the waters of the South China Sea and that it violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by blocking out fishing and oil exploration as well as by building artificial islands there.

But the same landmark decision did not rule on sovereignty issues like who owns Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground 124 nautical miles off Masinloc’s shoreline and within the country’s 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone.

“We have to calm things down… We have to create that diplomatic space for us to move forward,” Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Robespierre L. Bolivar, who previously led Philippine delegations to and co-chaired the ASEAN regional forum meetings, said in a Nov. 11 phone interview.

“That’s what we’re able to do during our chairmanship.”

That sort of calm and the warming up of ties with China allowed ASEAN to have Beijing endorse the Framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea last August in time for the club’s 50th founding anniversary, although it took them 15 years to get there. ASEAN and China first signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in November 2002.

One of the outcome documents expected today is China’s announcement of the start of negotiations on the Code of Conduct during the ASEAN plus China Summit, Mr. Bolivar said.

THE LESS REPORTED
“That’s a major accomplishment in itself,” he said.

But “the Philippines will be remembered not just for the Code of Conduct, but also for more on-the-ground practical cooperation” that Manila pushed, the diplomat said.

Mr. Bolivar was referring to the “operationalization” of communication hotlines between the foreign ministries of ASEAN and China so they can “quickly call each other” to address incidents within the region.

The bloc also agreed to apply the principles of the “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea,” while the Philippines and China boosted cooperation among their coast guards.

Those are soft gains which, while under-reported, cannot be ignored.

“In that sense, they [during Philippine chairmanship] have achieved practical short-term goals,” useful for ASEAN citizens who “will look for the immediate benefits of the 2017 Summit and related meetings in their everyday lives,” Asian Institute of Management finance and economics professor Federico M. Macaranas, who was Department of Foreign Affairs undersecretary under President Fidel V. Ramos and assistant secretary during President Corazon C. Aquino’s term, told BusinessWorld in an interview on Sunday.

Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute flagged that ASEAN cannot be “elitist”, drawing a comparison with the 2016 referendum in Britain that saw conservatives being outnumbered in their bid to stay in the European Union. The ordinary Filipino, for one, has yet to understand what the ASEAN Summit — beyond the currently aggravated traffic along EDSA — means to him.

“After the ‘Brexit’ that shook the European Union to its core last year, much has been said about the lesson learned for ASEAN that regional building projects must enjoy broad public support to sustain its endurance,” Hoang Thi Ha, lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute, wrote at the think tank’s October paper.

For Mr. Macaranas, “There’s hardly yet this ASEAN-ness, only being Asians.”

TRUMP AND APEC
The ASEAN Summit comes on the heels of another key event that brought state leaders US President Donald J. Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin together: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

APEC leaders — from 11 Pacific Rim countries — reached an agreement on Saturday to keep alive the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) deal without the US as Mr. Trump dropped that trade deal earlier championed by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Mr. Macaranas, who was chairman at the 1996 APEC Senior Officials Meeting, said: “The RCEP is more important to ASEAN than TPP which is more the concern of APEC,” referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that’s viewed as China’s way of matching the TPP.

“An ASEAN position on TPP at the APEC Summit in Da Nang… could have impacted but very weakly,” Mr. Macaranas said.

“ASEAN has failed to assert its central convening role in the economic realm of cross-regional cooperation.”

An RCEP Summit is set for Tuesday, Nov. 14.

Messrs. Xi and Putin won’t be attending the ASEAN Summit, which traditionally draws heads of governments, not necessarily heads of states. The prime ministers of China and Russia are attending the summit.

Mr. Trump will be in Manila, the last leg of his five-nation tour of a region he constantly referred to as “Indo-Pacific”. There’s a “big chance” that the US President will have a bilateral meeting with Mr. Duterte, the DFA said during the weekend.

“We’re pleased that US President Trump’s official engagement with ASEAN is during the Philippines’ chairmanship,” Mr. Bolivar said on a Nov. 11 phone interview.

History shows that Mr. Trump could have had the option not to swing by, said an ASEAN diplomatic source, taking the cue from other US presidents that skipped the ASEAN until Mr. Obama’s Asian pivot.

“Trump’s visit is a good sign that the US’ Asian pivot still exists,” the diplomatic source said.

A chairman’s statement is expected from the Leaders’ Summit, the ASEAN +1 and ASEAN +3, the DFA said.

The other outcome documents would be ASEAN’s consensus on the protection of rights of migrant workers and two statements from the East Asia Summit — one on chemical weapons and another on counter-terrorism.

Mr. Macaranas said the Philippines has “rightly so” covered the issues “but don’t forget the other parts.”

Addressing pandemics, reminiscent of how the bloc moved to counter Severe acute respiratory syndrome in the early 2000 decade, as well as issues on food security and maritime cooperation, should be on the agenda, he said.

“This is not an ordinary meeting. This is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN,” the diplomat-turned-academic said.

“It is pivotal.”

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