The Philippines, China, the U.S., and ASEAN in 2017

Asia Foundation October 19, 2016
By Steven Rood

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The Philippines will serve as ASEAN Chair in 2017, at which time ASEAN will mark its 50th anniversary. Having successfully served as host of APEC in 2015, the country has demonstrated that facilitating massive, significant international events is well within its capability—thus observers’ attention can focus on substance instead of administrative details. And there is considerable attention directed to the Philippines at the moment, not least because of the outspoken new president, Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippines is expected to have the fastest growth for the second year in a row among the five major economies in ASEAN. The president’s economic managers, and their foreign interlocutors, continue to focus on continuity of macro-policies and they are expected to intensify efforts to ensure that growth becomes more inclusive in order to reduce stubbornly high levels of poverty.

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The Philippines is expected to have the fastest growth for the second year in a row among the five major economies in ASEAN. Photo/Karl Grobl

His visit to China this week demonstrates how President Duterte’s administration is seeking improved relations with China. For example, he has downplayed the significance of the decision by the Arbitral Tribunal in the case the Philippines won regarding Chinese claims in the South China/West Philippine Sea. And the country is speeding up its formal membership in the new Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As Duterte prepared for his trip to China this week, he said “the Philippines should not touch the Scarborough Shoal issue because we cannot win that.”

Under President Duterte, the Philippines has essentially been executing a pivot away from the United States. Although messages surrounding relations with the U.S. were confusing for a while, inasmuch as the president didn’t inform his foreign or defense secretaries that there are to be no more joint military training exercises with the United States (to take one of the more noted examples), over time it has become much more explicit. The president says he doesn’t believe the Philippine military benefits from the training, discounts the military materiel that the U.S. has been providing, and wonders publicly about the value of the alliance with the United States.

All this has important implications for ASEAN. Under the previous administration of former president, Benigno S. Aquino III, the Philippines was seen as perhaps the closest ally of the United States in ASEAN. And it had been pressing for ASEAN solidarity in the face of Chinese pressure in the South China Sea. The change was stark at the 2016 East Asia Summit in September, when President Duterte’s official prepared remarks referenced the Tribunal’s decision, but in his actual speech he deviated from the prepared remarks and used the opportunity instead to accuse the United States of hypocrisy on the topic of human rights in light of a massacre committed by American forces during the colonial period in the early 20th century.

This deliberate distancing from the United States in the foreign policy realm has the support of some of the elements backing President Duterte, particularly from the political left, which has long had an anti-American thrust. Yet the general public retains a positive view of the U.S., as documented by decades of regular national surveys (see figure below). Sometimes this is influenced by current events—the recent high point for the U.S. and Australia came after considerable assistance was rendered in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)—but this attitude has persisted over time. And, some Duterte supporters are dismayed at the turnabout. Former president, Fidel V. Ramos, who Duterte regards as a mentor, has published a criticism of Duterte’s first 100 days, and did not join the delegation to China (despite having been named by Duterte in July as his special envoy to China).

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Analysts may puzzle over the long-term effects of the new foreign policy on Philippine-U.S. relations, but the implications for U.S. policy are clear. The Philippines is a sovereign country, and its legitimately elected leadership has the right to determine the extent, for instance, of military cooperation between the two countries. Yet the people-to-people ties remain strong; beyond the trust Filipinos have in the United States, there is a thriving Filipino-American community comprising millions. These connections go beyond any particular administration in either country and can be nurtured as part of an enduring relationship.

As for prospects for the Philippines’ chairing ASEAN, interestingly enough, the new stance regarding the South China/West Philippine Sea helps ease some of the difficulties the organization has encountered. In 2012 and in 2016, the vigorous pursuit by the Philippines of a united ASEAN statement on the issue led to unprecedented disruptions in the consensual proceedings of the Association, as countries with closer relations to China resisted taking a strong stance on the issue. Now that the Philippines is “pivoting to China” this problem is unlikely to recur under the Philippines chairmanship.

On other issues, the Philippines is well-placed to have a positive impact as ASEAN Chair. With robust economic growth and a strong team of economic managers in the Duterte cabinet, discussions of the ASEAN Economic Community that came into force in 2015, can be pursued. With a vibrant civil society community, the Philippines will be more welcoming of NGO participation than was Laos as Chair in 2016, when a parallel forum was held in Dili, Timor-Leste rather than in Vientiane.

Of course, President Duterte’s colorful (to put it mildly) style will cause some apprehensions. As he said, “I never took a course in statesmanship and I do not intend to be one.” In that light, the 2017 ASEAN Chairmanship should be an exciting time!

This post is a look ahead at the issues examined in the forthcoming Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance – Strategic Recommendations for the Incoming U.S. President on Foreign Policy Towards Asia. The Asia Foundation’s quadrennial project convenes a series of closed-door, high-level working groups of Asian and American thought leaders across the Asia Pacific that culminate in specific foreign policy recommendations for the incoming U.S. Administration to coincide with U.S. November presidential election. Read more.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets @StevenRoodPH. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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