OPINION: Philippines as Asean Chairman - Navigating uncharted territory
By Wan Zain
06 April 2017

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - As the chair of Asean, the Philippines must not only focus on the country's agenda especially in dealing with regional issue as President Duterte's mood swings can decide the foreign policy.

The chairmanship of Asean is rotated alphabetically. This has been the norm, or, standing order, in the region's diplomatic template since its inception in 1967. But rules in Asean are occasionally observed in their breach, especially if Indonesia asked for the privilege to skip the order, as has happened before.

This year, the Philippines became the chair as a matter of routine, and will have to get all the member states, including the 12 dialogue partners, up to scratch on Asean Regional Forum, which will be held in June 2017, followed by the Asean Summit and East Asian Summit at the end of 2017.

This is a tall order in terms of logistics but also strategic language expected from the member states as well as key powers like the United States and China. First of all, President Rodrigo Duterte has the final say on the shape of the agenda. Would South China Sea emerge as a prominent issue? But as the chair, the Philippines are obliged to respect the will of other member states too.

Therein the spoiler effect in Asean. Laos and Cambodia have sided with China not to introduce the maritime dispute into the regional body. Even Manila has an ambiguous attitude on the same, especially after President Duterte came into office. But the latter is helped and assisted by military generals trained largely in the US. And, there is every indication that US wants South China Sea to be a major item of discussion across all three Marquee events.

Somewhat tied into the above is the palpable tensions of China and the US. Beijing, as a show of its military muscle and political will, has sent its air craft carrier and battle group into the disputed area for the first time. This is a huge contrast from the heyday of Chinese naval diplomacy, which until 2011 had taken a lukewarm attitude towards South China Sea, often urging all sides to seek joint development; although not before insisting, too, that other claimants must respect the sovereignty of China.

China, in the eyes of many in the West, is an “unknown unknown." Does it want to be a global military power too? No one knows the exact answer but many have proceeded to paint China as a prospective "threat". Others dilute the dangers posed by China by speaking of a "charm offensive." In China, the policy makers have resorted to characterizing China as a power that is dedicated to its "peaceful development."

But there is an even bigger "unknown unknown" marked by the arrival and rise of President Donald Trump. Having inflated the military budget of Pentagon by 57 percent, what does the US wants to signal to China? That China should back off? Added with the recent announcement by the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, that there will or will not be any formulation on Asia’s “pivot” or “balancing” – how perplexed it seems. All these are issues that have to be framed by the Philippines, in consultation with other senior officials meetings in Asean.

With two "unknown unknowns," there is of course two "known knowns," to latch on to the concept of former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. First, Asean doesn't want war in the region or any kind of zero sum strategic rivalry that would have to compel the member states to choose US over China. Singapore, as a barometer of the Asean view, has articulated this most clearly.

Another "known known," is less uncertainties. Be it Trump, or, Duterte, the member states like Asean to be the anchor of predictability. With Trump and Duterte feeding off each other, Asean foreign ministers and the senior officials would have to work very hard to park Asean to something that is prosaic, programmatic and practical. Would this be One Maritime Belt One Silk Road, or, the call for the revival of the now defunct Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement?

These are all diplomatic landmines that the Philippines have to manage, failing which the candies and foreign direct investments expected from China and potentially Japan too would be up in smoke. As the chair of Asean, Manila must now resist the temptation to load the agenda with the Philippines' view, invariably, when Manila itself is not sure how Duterte's mood swings can determine the order of things on any given day.

Given Trump's similar nature, it goes without saying that China will watch all of these quietly from on high, and the more strategic members of Asean will play a quiet but ultimately decisive role too, in tweaking the agenda.
(The writer previously attached to the National University of Malaysia)

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