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ASEAN summit offers Duterte a global stage

by April 24, 2017 General
Top Story

By Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral

Posted on April 25, 2017

COMING OFF his topping TIME magazine’s 2017 poll of the world’s most influential people, President Rodrigo R. Duterte is expected to hog the regional limelight as he presides over the April 26-29 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila that culminates on Saturday, foreign policy experts said yesterday.

Eight heads of state of Association of South- east Asian Nations (ASEAN) members are arriving for the meeting, as well as Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor and Foreign Affairs minister of Myanmar, who is attending in President Htin Kyaw’s stead.

“Over the recent past, this has been the case. So Aung San Suu Kyi represented Myanmar in the last ASEAN summit in Laos,” ASEAN 2017 Director-General for Operations Marciano A. Paynor, Jr. said in a briefing in Malacañang yesterday.

He identified the visiting Southeast Asian heads of state as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.

Acting Local Government Secretary Catalino S. Cuy said in the briefing that the government is deploying 40,000 troops in Metro Manila and has spent “less than P2 billion” for the event’s security.

This week’s summit is the first of two leaders-level meetings the Philippines will convene this year, with the second — the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits — to be held in November together with ASEAN dialogue partners Australia, Canada, China, the European union, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The Philippines last hosted the summit 10 years ago in Cebu.

The Philippines’ chairmanship of ASEAN this year coincides with the bloc’s 50th anniversary after founding member-states Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand organized the group in August 1967 amid a raging “cold war” that divided the world between countries aligned with the United States on the one hand and those with China and the former Soviet Union — leaders of the socialist world that themselves did not have a smooth relationship.

Since then, ASEAN has moved to steer clear of divisive political and security issues, choosing to focus more on economic and cultural issues that fostered cooperation. Hence, the ASEAN Community declared in December 2015 has clearer benchmarks and timetables for the economic community component than for the parallel envisioned political-security community.

“I think this year’s ASEAN chairmanship will cement Duterte’s position as the new face of ASEAN,” Richard J. Heydarian, foreign policy expert at the De La Salle University, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“He’s gonna be the new face of ASEAN and the new face of ASEAN is [that of a] strongman, charismatic, populist leadership focused on fighting crime.”

This week’s and the November meetings with ASEAN dialogue partners, he said, will give Mr. Duterte, as chairman of the bloc, the opportunity to say “whatever he wants” to a global audience while advancing issues that are “close to our national interest”.

This, despite signs that the Philippines will “try not to rock the boat too much this year”, in reference to Mr. Duterte’s penchant to downplay any diplomatic edge the Philippines wrung from the July 2016 international ruling that invalidated the basis for China’s exclusive claim to much of the South China Sea.

For former ASEAN deputy secretary-general Wilfrido V. Villacorta, the Philippines’ chairmanship of ASEAN this year goes hand-in-glove with Mr. Duterte’s intention to implement a foreign policy that is less aligned with Washington.

Mr. Duterte had jolted the Philippines’ allies in October last year when he announced his “separation” from the United States in a dinner speech in Beijing. His Cabinet officials have taken pains since then to emphasize that Mr. Duterte was simply expressing his foreign policy that revolves around ASEAN as well as northeast Asian neighbors China, Japan and South Korea, although he had also brought Russia into that grouping.

Mr. Villacorta said in an e-mailed reply to queries that considering Mr. Duterte’s move to have “constructive engagement” with China, the Philippines could use its ASEAN chairmanship to steer discussions to China-backed free trade agreements.

“The Philippines will have a free hand in promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and will be able to optimize its relations with its immediate neighbors in Asia: fellow ASEAN member-states, China, Japan, South Korea and India,” Mr. Villacorta said.

“They will likely play an active role in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the One Belt and One Road, and the Free Trade Area for Asia and the Pacific.”

China-backed RCEP recently gained more prominence after President Donald J. Trump — in one of his first official steps after moving into the White House in January — yanked the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership which the administration of former president Barack H. Obama had championed as part of its Asian “pivot”.

This week’s ASEAN summit also comes just before the Silk Road summit that Beijing is hosting next month — which will be attended by Mr. Duterte.