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Waiting for Duterte to take the reins at Asean

Waiting for Duterte to take the reins at Asean

SUNDAY, November 27, 2016

AS AN eventful year comes to an end, the region is focusing on the role Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte will play in Asean.

As the new chair of the group, Duterte must represent Asean and a forceful and unified voice. He will have to preside over a dozen summits that he cannot miss next year.
There will be two Asean summits – the 30th and 31st – held separately during 2017. The first in Manila in April will be with his Asean colleagues, then the second will take place at Clark Air Base on Luzon Island in early November. The latter will involve a dozen related summits between Asean and its dialogue partners, including the United Nations. Meetings with major powers, particularly with China and the US, will be among the most important functions. 
Given the dramatic improvement of Philippine-China relations in recent months, there is no doubt Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will join the year-end summit with other dialogue partners. But a big question is whether the newly elected President Donald Trump will be bothered to come to the region and attend the fifth Asean-US Summit and 12th East Asia Summit at Clark Air Base. Before Laos took the chair last year, President Barack Obama enthusiastically committed one year ahead to attend the summit in Vientiane during his meeting with Asean leaders in Kuala Lumpur in November 2015.
Throughout next year, the chair will be busy organising meetings for at least 14 ministerial talks, 29 involving senior officials and 60 working group sessions involving the whole gamut of Asean affairs. Therefore, Duterte’s views on Asean from now until the end of next year will be closely scrutinised. So far, he has not made any major announcements about Asean and its agenda, except at the Asean summit during the chairmanship’s hand-over ceremony from Laos in September. There, he pledged to “highlight Asean as a model of regionalism and a global player with the interest of the people at its core”.
The Philippines will be chair to Asean during its 50th birthday. Expectations are naturally very high that the current chair and its outspoken president will raise the grouping’s profile to another level. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Manila has an exciting theme for Asean – “Partnering for change, engaging the world” – with six broad objectives: a “people-oriented and people-centred” Asean; peace and stability in the region; maritime security and cooperation; inclusive, innovation-led growth; a resilient Asean; and Asean as a model of regional and global involvement.
Positive changes absolutely will materialise if the chair plays it right, because the six broad priorities set by Manila have the potential to strengthen Asean’s identity as a rule-based organisation and bring all its members closer together. Most importantly, the Philippines wants to put Asean on the global agenda in a constructive way, strengthening the overall Asean voice in the international community. It will take time to gauge how well Duterte’s leadership style resonates within the Asean family.
In the past five months, Duterte has made global headlines with his fresh and unconventional comments, especially those related to the major powers including the US, China, Japan and Russia. His criticism of the US, a former colonising power, was the most controversial as he called for a break in relations as well as reduced security cooperation with Washington. Fortunately, the current US-Philippine cooperation remains unchanged as any policy shift would have serious ramifications for overall Asean security in months and years to come. However, his new policy towards China and the handling of the South China Sea disputes have quickly become his signature diplomacy.
It remains to be seen how Duterte’s leadership will shape and influence the issues of peace and stability in the region. In the past six years, the South China Sea dispute has been central to the regional conflict and major power rivalries. Now that dynamic has changed already – and Duterte hopes to make the trend permanent. Personally, the new president wants to strengthen ties with all Asean members, making them a strong regional partnership in regards to the outside world. As such, it would also make the Philippines stronger and wealthier.
Most importantly, the chair will have a major role in promoting the rule of law for the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. The preservation and protection of maritime resources would be another area of emphasis. Manila has maintained a low profile following the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July, which favoured the Philippines by rejecting China’s maritime claims, favouring personal and bilateral diplomacy. Asean did not issue a common statement over the verdict. In its latest communique, the grouping focused largely on the respect of rule of law and the diplomatic process.
Obviously, coming from Davao, the chair will continue to champion a “people-oriented” Asean.
While other Asean members had made similar commitments before, they were not serious about their implementation. Manila hopes to harness its people’s power in positive ways that will bring Asean more down to earth. At the moment, the Philippines has the most active civil society organisations in Asean with fearless media communities. 
When Asean reaches 50 next year, it will be headed by an unconventional leader who has a clear vision – to put the grouping in its “rightful place” in the global community of nations.
Let’s wait and see. It could be sooner than later before we find out just what place he means.