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Duterte’s undermining of ASEAN

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An inmate who is about to be released wears a wristband with the name of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at Quezon City Jail in Manila, Philippines 18 October 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj).
  • David Camroux

    Centre for International Studies (CERI) Sciences Po

In Brief

If the main foreign policy objective of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte was to make his archipelagic nation the centre of international relations concerns in the Asia Pacific, he has succeeded beyond expectations.


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Coined a ‘popularly elected despot’ by Chito Gascon of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, Duterte’s diplomatic flurries within Asia have sparked conversations among international observers, many of which have concentrated on their implications for the US pivot to Asia and US–China rivalry.

Ironically, the election of another loud-mouthed ‘boy-man’ demagogue, Donald Trump, may have changed the equation. If ‘The Donald’ applies his user-pay principle to the US security umbrella, it is conceivable that a divorce between the two countries by mutual consent could become possible.

This seems unlikely, not only because of the popularity of the US–Philippines alliance on both sides of the Pacific, but also because there appears to be a blooming ‘bromance’ between the Filipino president and the US president-elect. Duterte has already appointed José E.B. Antonio, a Filipino business partner of the US president-elect and builder of Manila’s own Trump Tower, as his special trade envoy to the United States.

Seen from Hanoi, the challenge of Duterte is not a weakening United States presence in the Pacific but the deleterious effects of his presidency on ASEAN. Vietnam was set to benefit greatly from the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in The Hague on China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea.

While some Vietnamese claims in the Paracel and Spratley Islands are now legally questionable, the legal standing of the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone from the Vietnamese coastline has been reinforced. Hanoi is thus perplexed why Duterte has seemingly discarded the South China Sea ruling bargaining chip when dealing multilaterally with China within the ASEAN context. By acceding to the long-standing Chinese demand for bilateral negotiations Duterte has effectively jettisoned several decades worth of effort to build a modicum of ASEAN solidarity.

The previous Aquino administration, even prior to the court case in The Hague, advocated involving ASEAN as a bloc for negotiating with China. This was the approach of all previous Filipino administrations. While in practice it was impossible to have a clear declaration on the South China Sea, the multilateral principle remained intact.

At his first ASEAN Summit in Vientiane in July 2016, Duterte claimed ‘the Philippines does not need cooperation with ASEAN’. Previous Filipino governments and civil society groups have invested considerable effort into the ASEAN process. For Vietnam — a country that has made ASEAN crucial to foreign relations in a post-Cold War environment — the Philippines’ actions are cause for concern.

Duterte’s attitude towards ASEAN suggests a distancing from the general practice of Southeast Asian political leaderships — the soft-hedging strategies described by Evelyn Goh in her recent seminal study of regional order in East Asia. To simplify, these strategies involve three elements: forms of flexible aligned nonalignment, an unwillingness to have to choose in a situation of Sino–US rivalry and the nonrepudiation of existing linkages while creating new ones. Myanmar’s post-junta foreign relations trajectory since 2010 displays these attributes. But in the ostensible Manichean outlook of Duterte, a rapprochement with China requires necessarily a separation — at least rhetorically — from the United States.

Most tragically, Duterte’s domestic policies challenge a fundamental norm within ASEAN, namely that of rule by law instead of rule of law. Some 4,700 people have been killed extra-judicially since he came to office. Even before toying with the idea of suspending habeas corpus, Duterte had abandoned due process, allowing State-controlled vigilantes and other goons to act with impunity. Other Southeast Asian countries are hardly paragons of the rule of law but generally there is a concern that at least some symbolic legal procedures should be respected.

How can Duterte’s belittling of ASEAN be explained? A clue can be found in Lee Jones’ illuminating study of the importance of sovereignty for Southeast Asian political elites. The notion of sovereignty is Janus-faced — it relates to both dealing with external actors and having unhindered control of domestic affairs. Unlike his predecessors, Duterte sees ASEAN as useless in strengthening Filipino sovereignty in relation to an external power, namely China.

The literature on ASEAN suggests that membership has served to legitimise regimes in relation to their domestic constituencies by reinforcing a sense of sovereignty over internal affairs. In the Philippines, this was the case until recently. Duterte is different. Like Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed xenophobic outsider defying political conventions, ASEAN is irrelevant (and perhaps even detrimental) to strengthening his grip on domestic political power.

The Philippines’ descent into authoritarianism 30 years after the end of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos is a tragedy, not only for the Philippines, but also for the region.  This profound regression effectively sabotages the ability of ASEAN as a whole to respect, or at least advance, the terms of its own Charter. It also undermines the role of regional integration in Southeast Asia in contributing to democratic consolidation at the national level.

David Camroux is Honorary Associate Professor and Senior Associate Researcher in the Centre for International Studies, Sciences Po, Paris and Professorial Fellow at the Vietnam National University, Hanoi

7 responses to “Duterte’s undermining of ASEAN”

  1. In their search for a sense of security in a world filled with uncertainty the electorate in both the Philippines and the USA have chosen two authoritarian men whose disdain for careful analysis and respected laws and rights is worrisome, to say the least. Per reports I have read the public in the Philippines is still supportive of the extra judicial killings going on. How much longer will this be? How will Americans respond to efforts by Trump to deport undocumented immigrants, register Muslims, etc?

    And then there is the whole arena of foreign affairs. By cozying up to China and/or Russia will these two leaders make the world safer for their constituents? Time will tell but I have my doubts.

    • It is not yet proven that it is extrajudicial killings or even how many of them. Just to inform you it is alleged extrajudicial killings, it is not yet proven. Don’t let your mind be poisoned by these misinformation of the media.

  2. What you don’t understand is the possibility of a world war 3 just in case China loses its mind. China wouldn’t think twice to strike the PH on the ground of “imminent danger” which Bush used when it declared war against Irag. Why PH? The reason for this is because PH is the most suitable place where USA can position its troops. What our country is doing right now is just for self-preservation. Becoming friends with Russia and China while maintaining good relations with Japan and USA and without giving up on our claims in South China Sea is only logical. It would ensure our country’s very own survival without the president violating our constitution and even upholding it.

    • Don’t expect other people to understand, they don’t even mind to confirm whether the alleged extrajudicial killings are true or not, they just rely on what they see and hear from the mainstream media. Now even bloggers or even in social media they will just say that all those deaths are summary killings or extrajudicial even though there is no proof yet If it is true. We are on our own on this one, this is the consequences of trying to be not a puppet of the US, we just need to be patient. Let’s just hope Trump is committed to his country’s allies, I think he knows the importance of the Philippines, he said it himself that our country is an important strategic ally.

    • Soft hedging/balancing is a tried and true practice in modern Southeast Asia. Its origins can be found in the way King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn maintained Siamese independence – at least political if not economic – “by swimming between ‘the whale’ (Britain) and the crocodile (France”). Mohammad Hatta’s, Indonesia’s first Vice-President’s 1948 enunciation of the principle of “rowing between two coral reefs” is in the same vein.

      My criticism of Duterte’s foreign policies is that he seems to feel the need (rhetorically at least) to abandon one long term ally, the US, for a new unsure relationship with a competing one. Various Australian governments have shown that it is quite possible to maintain a strong alliance with the US while relying on the Chinese economic locomotive.

      For realist scholars of IR (of which i am not one) hedging or soft balancing is what middle and small powers do when they are fortunate enough to be courted by two or more great powers.

      • “My criticism of Duterte’s foreign policies is that he seems to feel the need (rhetorically at least) to abandon one long term ally”

        First, he hasn’t abandoned the alliance, not yet.

        Second, it is not any alliance we are talking about. This is a “military alliance” between US and Philippines. If Duterte wants to be trusted by China, this (his lip service) is the least he need to do.

  3. Another interesting article though it has a factual error regarding the Philippine-China arbitration ruling.

    1 The writer should please take note that it was NOT the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that made the ruling on 12 July 2016. The ruling was made by an ad hoc tribunal, constituted under Annex VII of Unclos. And please note that the PCA is not a court. It only provides a registry and secretarial assistance to “arbitral tribunals constituted to resolve specific disputes” for a large fee.

    2 Yes, it is true that “some Vietnamese claims in the Paracel and Spratley Islands are now legally questionable”. This is due in part because even France, which colonized Vietnam (formerly Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin) in the late 19th century until their embarrassing defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, never made a formal claim for the Paracel island or the Spratly islands as the French knew that they belong to China under the Sino-Franco Convention of 1887.

    Also “British record proves there is no dispute regarding the Nansha Islands and that China is the sole titleholder”, says Professor John Anthony Carty.

    “This British record is not just the opinion of an individual lawyer – this is the product of an immense amount of research that the foreign ministry did in London. They investigated all of their archives and all of the correspondence they had with other countries for a period of 100 years,” he added.

    After WW2, former colonial powers like Britain, the US, Japan, Spain and France never laid claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands.

    3 It is not true that “the legal standing of the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone from the Vietnamese coastline has been reinforced” (after the arbitration ruling) because China, as a member of Unclos, never challenged Vietnam’s 200 nm EEZ except where the Vietnamese coast is facing Yongxing (Woody) island in the Paracel. Since the distance between them is about 260 nm, the new, equidistant maritime boundary is 130 nm, according to Article 15 of Unclos.

    In the year circa 2,000, China had also settled with Vietnam the maritime delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin.

    Now China only challenges Vietnam’s tenuous claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands.

    4 The writer said “My criticism of Duterte’s foreign policies is that he seems to feel the need (rhetorically at least) to abandon one long term ally, the US,..”

    Can anyone blame President Duterte for adopting a foreign policy that is free of US interests, when, according to the Foreign Secretary, Mr Pefecto Yasay Jr “America has failed us”?

    The Philippines was a US colony from circa 1889 till July 1946 and despite being an US ally since then, today the Philippines is arguably one of the poorest nation in South East Asia.

    Mr Yasay Jr added that “Breaking away from the shackling dependency of the Philippines to effectively address both internal and external security threats has become imperative in putting an end to our nation’s subservience to United States’ interest.”

    The Philippines, he said, has been independent since 1946 but the US retained “invisible chains that reined us in towards dependency and submission as little brown brothers not capable of true independence and freedom.”

    “I would rather go to Russia and to China,” said President Duterte. “At least, even if we do not agree with the ideology, they have respect for the people.”

    Russia is offering to sell the Philippines 20,000 AK47 assault rifles under a ‘buy one and get one free” deal after Uncle Sam refused the sale of assault rifles to the Philippines.

    China has signed a series of MOUs to invest an estimated US$13 Billion in the Philippines plus another estimated US$11 billion later.

    Vietnam too had enough of their French colonial master but they were not as polite as the Philippine people.

    In 1954, the Vietnamese brutally defeated their former colonial oppressors in the battle of Dien Bien Phu and that ended the egregious French colonization in Vietnam and later in Cambodia and Laos too.

    5 So is President Duterte “undermining Asean” as the title seems to imply?

    No. In my view, Asean’s Centrality was already undermined when four members chose to join the divisive, US–led TPP, which excluded the other six Asean members, including the Philippines.

    As the saying goes in the Foreign service: “Nations have permanent interests but not permanent friends.”

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