Del Rosario hits ‘lack of leadership’ in ASEAN

Paterno Esmaquel II
Del Rosario hits ‘lack of leadership’ in ASEAN
'In a broader context, one can say that ASEAN is adrift,' former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario says ahead of the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila

MANILA, Philippines – Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario criticized the “lack of leadership” in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as he scored the 10-member bloc for failing to stress the need for international law. 

In a speech on Wednesday, November 8, Del Rosario said many ASEAN states “have found themselves being pulled in different directions.”

He continued: “This has been worsened by a lack of leadership from among us. In a broader context, one can say that ASEAN is adrift.”

Del Rosario explained that “the challenges we presently face may be attributed to a lack of emphasis on the importance of international law.”

“Without this emphasis, we have a disjointed reality between the statements that we make and the practices that prevail on the ground. These practices, with militarization chiefly among them, add to confusion and subtract from enduring trust,” he said.

He also said that trust in ASEAN “depends on the body’s ability to achieve meaningful consensus and demonstrate its effectiveness.”

“If ASEAN pursues an overabundance of caution, it risks becoming only a bystander to the events within its own region,” Del Rosario said. 

Del Rosario was speaking at a conference organized by his think tank, the Albert del Rosario Stratbase Institute, 5 days before the opening of the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits hosted by the Philippines. 

China’s ‘creeping force’

ASEAN, a regional grouping that is marking its 50th year, is sometimes blasted for weak statements against China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

Del Rosario was the foreign secretary who steered the Philippines in filing a case against China over the disputed waters. The Philippines won this case, but the Duterte administration chose to downplay this victory for the sake of better ties with China. 

In his speech on Wednesday, Del Rosario emphasized China’s “creeping force” to control the South China Sea, parts of which the Philippines claims as the West Philippine Sea. 

He stressed that China should pursue its goals “within the framework of international law.”

“In our view, China should consider if, in achieving its present military or economic objectives, it will continue to have a measure of respect from its neighbors,” he said.

He said, on the other hand, “if trying to get everyone to adhere to the rule of law does not work, one other alternative is an approach characterized by a strategic build-up of defense capabilities for deterrence purposes.”

He cited experts’ suggestions for ASEAN countries to “thoughtfully ramp up their defense transfers and invest in select military platforms as a matter of necessity.”

“Although a cycle of reactive militarization will surely raise the stakes and the tension, this may still be a prudent path,” Del Rosario said.

He then recalled the time when “our seas were less tumultuous and our differences were less intractable.”

“Time is running short for us to return to that period,” Del Rosario said. –

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at