Analysts: Duterte's softer stance on China 'demoralizing,' hurts ASEAN

MANILA, Philippines – As expected, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte weakened Southeast Asian resistance to Chinese expansionism in the contested South China Sea or West Philippine Sea, at the ASEAN Summit which he hosted here.

Duterte's chairman's statement evaded island building activities and the Philippines' legal victory against Beijing in an international tribunal ruling. The statement is meant to reflect the views of all ASEAN leaders.

It is a stark contrast to the Philippines' stance under former president Benigno Aquino, Duterte's immediate predecessor. Aquino had lobbied hard at ASEAN summits for the bloc to voice its strong opposition to the Chinese militarization, and official statements at those events often reflected that. 

Analysts said Duterte's move has significant consequences, especially for the regional bloc.

"It makes it more difficult for ASEAN to agree on a consistent and unified basis for dealing with China and the maritime disputes," Jay Batongbacal, Director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told Rappler.

"Despite early signals from other claimants that they are willing to discuss the basis for a unified approach toward the South China Sea under Philippine leadership, the Philippines' refusal to discuss the award squarely indicates a refusal to find common ground and join with our neighbors on a matter of mutual interest."

He also said the statement would overshadow the Philippines' hosting of the summit.

"After this summit, Philippine leadership of ASEAN will be overshadowed by its deference to China. The Philippines will be known more for having surrendered to China than for leading ASEAN on its 50th year."

Richard Heydarian, a political scientist, also said the Philippines' softer approach has frustrated other nations in the region.

"Increasingly the Philippines is being seen as part of the emerging Chinese sphere of influence inside ASEAN, a remarkable climb down from the country's robust position just a year ago," he said. "And this is creating deep frustration among major founders such as Indonesia and Singapore, and fellow claimant Vietnam."

Heydarian also said the move could be harmful to ASEAN.

"It is definitely demoralizing to those within the government and beyond who have been pushing to respect international law in the South China Sea. It could also emboden China to double down on securing its strategic supremacy in the areas. Above all, [it could] undermine ASEAN centrality," he said.

PhD student and teaching fellow at UP School of Economics JC Punongbayan agrees, saying the President has decidedly opted for a weaker stance when it comes to our sovereign claims in the disputed territories, which will hurt the Philippines in negotiations.

"First, the President allowed a Chinese ship to survey Benham Rise and stay there for at least 3 months last year. Second, he said we cannot stop China from 'doing its thing' and building facilities in Panatag Shoal. Third, he said 'he can sell' islands in the West Philippine Sea if the Philippines becomes 'very rich,'" he said in a piece he wrote for Rappler.

"In no way should President Duterte give the impression that we are trading away our sovereign claims for a few billion dollars of aid and loans. In the words of former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, such a submissive stance 'puts us in a poor strategic position without the benefit of flexibility, especially if there is a need to negotiate.'"

He also said the ASEAN Summit would have been the right opportunity "for the President to take a lead and show the world that our sovereign claims will not soften or yield, even as we receive a huge inflow of aid money and loans from China." 

Even Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said it was important to have a common stance on South China Sea. Indonesia's strategy towards China has been one of the toughest in the region, blowing up Chinese fishing boats and deploying navy ships and fighter jets in contested waters in the South China Sea.

In an interview before the summit, Jokowi said "South China Sea is one of the issues that we need to solve immediately."

"In the previous meetings, there are still differences between ASEAN member states," he said. "I think we need to have a common stand. The most important is that ASEAN internally needs to have a mutual agreement on this issue."

He said while the dialogue between ASEAN and China is essential to build confidence among member nations, ASEAN can only engage China in a dialogue after it has agreed on a common position on the South China Sea issue. 

"Then and only then can we communicate with China," Jokowi said. 

US presence crucial

Despite the stark difference between Jokowi and Duterte's approach however, in true ASEAN fashion, he chose not to criticize Duterte's strategy.

"Every country has a different policy,” Jokowi said. “I think that President Duterte has decided on his policy for the Philippines. In Indonesia, we also have our own policy. We cannot have the same policy for all countries."

Meanwhile, Tirta Mursitama, senior analyst at Indonesia's Kenta Institute and a professor of international relations at Binus University, said US presence in the region may temper China.

"Even though it seems that ASEAN leans more towards China, the US has re-engaged with some major Asian countries recently. As we’ve learned in the past two weeks, US Vice President Mike Pence visited some Asian countries, including Indonesia – the only country in the ASEAN region," he told Rappler.

"He sent a bold message to China that the US (under President Donald Trump) is still here in Asia. The US still sees Asia as an important part of its global strategy," he said.

However, Mursitama said that the North Korean conflict is one that concerns him, adding that "if it become an open conflict, it may affect the situation in the South China Sea as well." He said both nations must exercise restraint.

Mursitama added that it is important for ASEAN to "urge China to stop doing their activities in the South China Sea because it will provoke other claimant countries." He also said it is necessary to create the Code of the Conduct at the soonest to guide actions in the disputed areas. 

Duterte on Saturday night had a conversation with Trump, where Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the United States' alliance with the Philippines and his interest in developing a warm, working relationship with Duterte.

'Self restraint'

The statement did not go into specifics, and repeated lines such as the need to "exercise self-restraint," to avoid "actions that may further complicate the situation," and not to resort to "threat or use of force."

"We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area. We reaffirmed the importance of the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoiding actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force," it said.

It did stress the need for "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes" in international law, but did so not under the heading on the South China Sea. This line fell under the heading on "ASEAN Community Vision 2025."

SOFTER STANCE. The ASEAN statement does not mention the international tribunal ruling rejecting China's claims on the South China Sea. Photo by Rappler

SOFTER STANCE. The ASEAN statement does not mention the international tribunal ruling rejecting China's claims on the South China Sea.

Photo by Rappler

China has been turning reefs and shoals in areas of the sea claimed by the Philippines and other nations into artificial islands, and installing military facilities there. ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea, but China insists it has sovereign rights over nearly all of it, even waters approaching its neighbors' coasts.

The Aquino administration filed a case at a UN-backed tribunal asking it to reject China's claims and artificial island building. The tribunal last year ruled largely in the Philippines' favor.

But the ruling came after Duterte, who favors much closer ties with China, took power. 

Duterte steadfastly refused to use the verdict to pressure China, instead pursuing warmer relations and billions of dollars' worth of trade and aid.

Ahead of the summit Duterte said the Philippines and other nations were helpless to stop Chinese artificial island building in areas they claimed, so there was no point protesting against it at diplomatic events such as Saturday's summit.  – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com