September 10, 2016
ASEAN 2017–Partnering for Change. Go for it, Rodrigo Duterte
by Mergawati Zulfakar
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Laos–with a strong message for change in ASEAN
ONE is the new kid on the block in the international arena while the other is making an exit.
Their appearance at the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Vientiane this week did not fail to excite the media. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who made his maiden appearance, hit the headlines for the wrong or right reason depending on how you look at it.
US President Barack Obama, a regular attendee at these summits, made his swan song but not before talking tough on the South China Sea issue.
All the drama this week in Vientiane seemed to be generated from one source, to the extent that even host Laos had to take a backseat while other ASEAN leaders, including first-timer Myanmar’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi, happily stayed out of the spotlight.
Chinese officials and their premier, always being hunted by the media for a line or two on the South China Sea territorial and maritime disputes, must have been quite relieved that the attention was elsewhere.
The headlines surrounding Duterte’s rants and his absence from several meetings at the summit have overshadowed the positive outcome on other issues. For one, ASEAN leaders were able to get their eight dialogue partners to issue a declaration on migrants and human trafficking.
he East Asia Summit (EAS) declaration is in support of the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Actip) signed during last year’s ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur.
Actip’s objectives, among others, are to effectively prevent and combat human trafficking, especially women and children, and to protect and assist human-trafficking victims with full respect for their human rights.
The EAS declaration precedes the UN General Assembly’s summit on Sept 19 to address these problems. EAS also decided to issue a strongly worded statement expressing grave concern over the missile tests conducted by North Korea.
The statement, among others, urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear tests and ballistic missile programmes, and condemned its nuclear tests conducted early this year.
An ASEAN official noted that although the previous EAS had issued a similar statement, the language used this time was stronger and an achievement considering that China, an ally of North Korea, agreed to the language.
As the statement was issued on Thursday, the US Geological Survey (USGS) reported a 5.3-magnitude earthquake close to North Korea’s nuclear test site yesterday. USGS said the shallow depth and precise timing of the quake suggests it was man-made.
North Korea has threatened to hold another test as it presses ahead with its nuclear weapons programme in defiance of international sanctions.
On the South China Sea issue, some ASEAN officials agreed that Beijing had a big role in making sure the issue was not played up at a summit hosted by Laos, which is pro-Beijing.
Although the leaders after their ASEAN-China summit issued two statements – one to commemorate the 25th anniversary as a dialogue partner and the other, the usual ASEAN-China statement – there was no mention at all of the international arbitral ruling that sided with Manila, stating that China has no claims in the South China Sea.
An official felt that Duterte was probably “conciliatory” in how Manila should treat China. “The Philippines already won the ruling. The important thing is how to manage relations with a big power like China,” the diplomat added.
Obama’s Parting shot to Malaysia’s First Couple?
Obama’s parting shot at the summit was that the ruling against China “was binding” and “helped to clarify maritime rights in the region”.
There will be more interesting times ahead as far as the South China Sea issue is concerned. ASEAN and China have agreed to come up with a framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by the middle of next year, which lays out how the claimant countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Taiwan – should behave.
Laos has passed the ASEAN chair to the Philippines for the next year. Just like the previous ASEAN chair, Manila’s theme for next year is “Partnering for change, engaging the world”, which Duterte said reflected the Philippines’ resolve to consolidate ASEAN to enable it to take its rightful place in the international community.
“We will pursue initiatives and enhance cooperation with global partners to ensure that ASEAN citizens live in peace, stability, security and growth, all the while retaining ASEAN’s centrality, unity and solidarity, which we will maintain for all time,” he said in his acceptance speech.
Yes, ASEAN unity lately has been tested and as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said (as if his views mattered–Din Merican), it is important for ASEAN to stay together for the grouping to be respected as a credible community.