The departure statements of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as he left for Vientiane for the ASEAN summit may have worried some and enlivened his detractors, but a deeper look into the context of the words merits further reflection on ASEAN policy, the BIMP EAGA advocacy, and the geopolitical dynamics of the ASEAN seas. Here’s a list:
1) Duterte, on his country’s behalf, will chair ASEAN as it celebrates 50 years. Having a leader like Duterte helming the regional body reflects the rising tide of more assertive leadership seen in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
2) The current row between ASEAN countries, China, and the US on the nine-dash line will require a strong ASEAN chair. The various Southeast Asian nations, especially its top 5 (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam) have grown into economies able to slowly prosper on their own, and none of them want to serve as proxies for either of the larger protagonists, since, last we checked, no ASEAN country is anyone’s colony. Duterte may be right or even proper in asserting that.
So far, Duterte has been able to show a high level of independence against these two governments, which may be good for further strengthening the bloc as an independent regional economy of 600 million, making it a counterweight against China and the US.
3) Duterte is the first ASEAN leader to emerge from the BIMP-EAGA region. The subregional grouping comprises the less visible regions of ASEAN, areas such as Indonesia’s Celebes, Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak, Brunei, and Mindanao in the Philippines. These regions banded together in the 1990s to reassert centuries-old trade relationships and cultural variations to forge a growth path for its peoples. This should finally bring trade for the subregions whose economies are away from the busy trading routes of the Malacca and Sunda straits and the West Philippine Sea.
4) What exactly is the special relationship between the US and the Philippines? Why be worried about being frank to the Americans or offending them? The true test of the relationship America has with us rests on being straightforward and able to obtain mutual benefit in spite of historical sins such as the massacre of Moros and the theft of the Balangiga bells.
Absent that, then we risk being a codependent or slave. We say this becasue the two characterize a voluntary subsumption under their influence. Activists call us a “neocolony,” while our southeast Asian neighbors regards us as “little America.”
As ASEAN Chair, Duterte needs to dispel these labels with an assertive tone, lest we risk being labeled America’s agent in Asia in the context of the maritime dispute with China. To be portrayed as such is bad for the Philippines and creates tension within ASEAN. Duterte may just be the guy to change that.
5) Barack Obama and the non-ASEAN countries are a guest in this annual gathering. How much latitude should they have in influencing the outcomes of the meeting? What should be the ethos of a guest? Is the US being appropriate when it tries to invite itself to engage in bilateral meetings with ASEAN leaders?
From what we hear, it’s the US government that sought to meet with the Philippine President. If that is so, then its announcement to call off the meeting with Duterte is a withdrawal of its own desire to meet with him, while others in Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia may feel that this is a “rightful rebuke” by the Filipino President of a “meddling” foreigner.
Who invited who, then? In case it can show that the Philippine government made the overtures to meet with the American leader, then perhaps the US State Department should clarify.
The words uttered at the Davao airport have deep historical significance. While some protective of the American relationship are disappointed, others cheer. All stories have sides to them, the smart and thoughtful are able to read them all, even those the Western media tends to ignore. Since the full video of the predeparture program is available online, it might be good, for transparency’s sake, to watch it.