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Can the Philippines lead amid global uncertainty?

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the opening plenary of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN at a hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia 11 May 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring).

In Brief

In recent decades the world appeared to acknowledge the need for policies of openness and cooperation. It seemed widely accepted that only these policies could best achieve sustainable growth and deal with the shocks and surprises that the future has in store.


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But seemingly out of nowhere Brexit happened, Trump won the US presidency and a far right candidate made it to the final round of France’s presidential elections. By all accounts, the global policy environment has never been more uncertain and unsettling. Against this backdrop, the Philippines has an opportunity to step up and ensure at least some measure of stability.

2017 is ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and the Philippines’ turn as ASEAN chair. Already it has hosted the ASEAN Summit from 26–29 April. The Philippines’ chairmanship should have been a bigger moment considering that in July 2016 the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines over China in their South China Sea dispute.

Instead Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did not mention the landmark victory or China’s aggression at the ASEAN Summit, dealing a blow to whatever momentum was building within ASEAN toward a bolder stance on the South China Sea dispute. While this will have future implications for the Philippines, Duterte’s decision is one response to the dilemma shared in varying degrees by all ASEAN members: how to deal with China. Some, like Duterte, hope that something positive will come from the ‘befriending’ China approach.

The theme for the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship is ‘Partnering for Change, Engaging the World’. The noted omission in Duterte’s summit statement has also dashed many hopes for the Philippines to make significant progress toward the ASEAN Political–Security Community goal. The Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’ — which many international commentators perceive as a human rights violation — is also a hindrance on the Philippines’ leadership capabilities.

But there is still time in the ASEAN chairmanship for the Philippines to show leadership in other aspects of human rights, such as increasing equal access to opportunities, improving access to social services for vulnerable groups and enhancing provision of basic necessities to citizens — particularly healthcare and improved nutrition. And it should, as this is an integral and ongoing priority for ASEAN. That being said, expectations are not high.

Becoming an ASEAN Community is and always has been an evolutionary process. ASEAN has come a long way since its early beginnings as a loose organisation. The ‘ASEAN way’ of consensus and non-intervention, for all its limitations, has slowly but surely brought together its diverse members under a goal of shared prosperity. The region has enjoyed long-running stability, peace and sustained growth, overcoming difficult financial challenges and natural calamities. So while the Philippines may have let its advantage slide with regards to the South China Sea issue, there are other critical matters at hand that it can focus on. Lack of leadership, not just consensus, has hobbled ASEAN in the past. With the Philippines’ leadership, ASEAN can and should play a more crucial role on the global stage.

One concrete way is for the Philippines to deliver on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) among ASEAN and its dialogue partners China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India. RCEP will have to be a meaningful and substantial package — one that has both commercial value and inclusive benefits. It need not be a single undertaking. As in the case of ASEAN it can evolve slowly, but it must begin with clear commitments and provide an ‘early harvest’ to those involved.

Bringing RCEP to a conclusion is the most concrete way for the Philippines to realise its 2017 chairmanship theme of ‘Partnering for Change, Engaging the World’ and for ASEAN to be the undisputed model for regionalism.

Erlinda M. Medalla is Senior Research Fellow at the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.

One response to “Can the Philippines lead amid global uncertainty?”

  1. I must admit to being skeptical that President Duterte could offer much leadership on RCEP. First, he lacks experience in foreign and economic affairs. Second, he is very focused on dealing with the domestic drug problems his country has. Third, the recent fighting on Mindanao will probably require much, if not all, of his attention.

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