Opinion & Analysis

Asia Matters: The Philippines as the chair of ASEAN

Leaders of the 10 Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) member states have gathered in Manila for the 30th ASEAN summit, the first of two leader-level summits this year. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will play host at the event, amid ongoing tensions over the South China Sea.

The ASEAN chair

The chair of ASEAN rotates annually, typically based on the alphabetical order of the English names of member-states. The Philippines was one of five founding members when ASEAN was announced in 1967.

Consensus is key to ASEAN’s operation. The chair is expected to promote the interests of the regional bloc and ensure ASEAN centrality in leading initiatives, working with external partners, and responding to crises. The chair is also tasked with hosting the ASEAN summits, as well as numerous related summits, events, councils, and bodies.

To achieve ASEAN-wide consensus, the chair must demonstrate diplomatic and leadership agility. The drama over the 2016 ASEAN joint statement on the South China Sea dispute, where Cambodia was viewed as a spoiler, highlighted the challenge. While some viewed it as a blow to ASEAN’s credibility as a regional player, that ASEAN ultimately managed to issue the communique was evidence of strength, despite internal divisions.

Duterte sees potential for ASEAN partners to work together on regional 'peace and stability', especially terrorist attacks, illegal drugs, and transnational crimes such as human trafficking.

Duterte at the helm

In 2017, the Philippines’ ability to build consensus will be tested by sticky issues such as the territorial disputes, violent extremism, and Duterte’s controversial domestic agenda. The country is undergoing a major shift in its foreign relations and domestic politics. Duterte’s pivot away from the US, outwardly softer approach to China, and tendency towards bilateralism all indicate a new approach from the Philippines on regional issues.

Regional security

One of the most anticipated issues during the summit will be the South China Sea disputes. 

Duterte has indicated he does not intend to raise the Hague arbitral ruling (which ruled in favour of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China) with ASEAN. Duterte has skewed toward bilateral approaches, which may cause some instability in the context of ASEAN multilateralism. The appearance of a Vietnamese fishing flotilla at the Scarborough Shoal in March evidenced possible cooperation between the Philippines and Vietnam, and was suggested by one expert as a way to keep the Hague ruling in play. 

The ASEAN summit also coincides with the state visits of Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The draft communique issued at the end of the meeting may indicate whether the Philippines can lead ASEAN and China towards completion of the framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Countering crime and human rights

Duterte sees potential for ASEAN partners to work together on regional “peace and stability”, especially terrorist attacks, illegal drugs, and transnational crimes such as human trafficking. He has spoken of a "drug-free ASEAN", with similarities to his internationally controversial “war on drugs”. He also recently praised ASEAN’s non-interference principle, in which member states refrain from publicly involving themselves in each other's domestic affairs. The position will find favour, as issues such as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, use of the death penalty in Malaysia, and military rule in Thailand create incentives for ASEAN members to turn a blind eye to human rights issues.

New Zealand as an ASEAN dialogue partner

At the same time, New Zealand’s links with ASEAN and its members continue to strengthen. The Royal New Zealand Navy warship HMNZS Te Kaha spent four days in Manila in April as part of a goodwill visit, before moving on to Singapore and Malaysia for an annual military exercise. As an ASEAN dialogue partner since 1975, New Zealand will participate in the Defence Ministers Meeting Plus  talks this October in Manila. The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement and under-negotiation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – between ASEAN members and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand — mean that ASEAN is at the heart of New Zealand’s key trade interests.

New Zealand will find much to like in the Philippines’ appeal to a rules-based approach to regional security in its thematic priority of maritime security, and the specific appeal to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It may view the pursuit of the Code of Conduct favourably, provided it strengthens multilateral diplomatic approaches. Indeed, New Zealand is deeply interested in ASEAN centrality. But New Zealand also prides itself on ethically-informed foreign relations, including a commitment to international human rights law. In practice, this has often meant a mixture of ethical positioning and pragmatic calculations, as was the case with Thailand in the years following the 2014 military coup.

A major challenge for New Zealand, then, will be balancing its economic and strategic priorities in the context of declining interest among ASEAN member states in defending human rights commitments.

– Asia Media Centre