If the main foreign policy objective of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte was to make his archipelagic nation the centre of international relations concerns in the Asia Pacific, he has succeeded beyond expectations. Coined a ‘popularly elected despot’ by Chito Gascon of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, Duterte’s diplomatic flurries within Asia have sparked conversations among international observers, many of which have concentrated on their implications for the US pivot to Asia and US–China rivalry.
Ironically, the election of another loud-mouthed ‘boy-man’ demagogue, Donald Trump, may have changed the equation. If ‘The Donald’ applies his user-pay principle to the US security umbrella, it is conceivable that a divorce between the two countries by mutual consent could become possible.
This seems unlikely, not only because of the popularity of the US–Philippines alliance on both sides of the Pacific, but also because there appears to be a blooming ‘bromance’ between the Filipino president and the US president-elect. Duterte has already appointed José E.B. Antonio, a Filipino business partner of the US president-elect and builder of Manila’s own Trump Tower, as his special trade envoy to the United States.
Seen from Hanoi, the challenge of Duterte is not a weakening United States presence in the Pacific but the deleterious effects of his presidency on ASEAN. Vietnam was set to benefit greatly from the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in The Hague on China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea.
While some Vietnamese claims in the Paracel and Spratley Islands are now legally questionable, the legal standing of the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone from the Vietnamese coastline has been reinforced. Hanoi is thus perplexed why Duterte has seemingly discarded the South China Sea ruling bargaining chip when dealing multilaterally with China within the ASEAN context. By acceding to the long-standing Chinese demand for bilateral negotiations Duterte has effectively jettisoned several decades worth of effort to build a modicum of ASEAN solidarity.
The previous Aquino administration, even prior to the court case in The Hague, advocated involving ASEAN as a bloc for negotiating with China. This was the approach of all previous Filipino administrations. While in practice it was impossible to have a clear declaration on the South China Sea, the multilateral principle remained intact.
At his first ASEAN Summit in Vientiane in July 2016, Duterte claimed ‘the Philippines does not need cooperation with ASEAN’. Previous Filipino governments and civil society groups have invested considerable effort into the ASEAN process. For Vietnam — a country that has made ASEAN crucial to foreign relations in a post-Cold War environment — the Philippines’ actions are cause for concern.
Duterte’s attitude towards ASEAN suggests a distancing from the general practice of Southeast Asian political leaderships — the soft-hedging strategies described by Evelyn Goh in her recent seminal study of regional order in East Asia. To simplify, these strategies involve three elements: forms of flexible aligned nonalignment, an unwillingness to have to choose in a situation of Sino–US rivalry and the nonrepudiation of existing linkages while creating new ones. Myanmar’s post-junta foreign relations trajectory since 2010 displays these attributes. But in the ostensible Manichean outlook of Duterte, a rapprochement with China requires necessarily a separation — at least rhetorically — from the United States.
Most tragically, Duterte’s domestic policies challenge a fundamental norm within ASEAN, namely that of rule by law instead of rule of law. Some 4,700 people have been killed extra-judicially since he came to office. Even before toying with the idea of suspending habeas corpus, Duterte had abandoned due process, allowing State-controlled vigilantes and other goons to act with impunity. Other Southeast Asian countries are hardly paragons of the rule of law but generally there is a concern that at least some symbolic legal procedures should be respected.
How can Duterte’s belittling of ASEAN be explained? A clue can be found in Lee Jones’ illuminating study of the importance of sovereignty for Southeast Asian political elites. The notion of sovereignty is Janus-faced — it relates to both dealing with external actors and having unhindered control of domestic affairs. Unlike his predecessors, Duterte sees ASEAN as useless in strengthening Filipino sovereignty in relation to an external power, namely China.
The literature on ASEAN suggests that membership has served to legitimise regimes in relation to their domestic constituencies by reinforcing a sense of sovereignty over internal affairs. In the Philippines, this was the case until recently. Duterte is different. Like Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed xenophobic outsider defying political conventions, ASEAN is irrelevant (and perhaps even detrimental) to strengthening his grip on domestic political power.
The Philippines’ descent into authoritarianism 30 years after the end of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos is a tragedy, not only for the Philippines, but also for the region. This profound regression effectively sabotages the ability of ASEAN as a whole to respect, or at least advance, the terms of its own Charter. It also undermines the role of regional integration in Southeast Asia in contributing to democratic consolidation at the national level.
David Camroux is Honorary Associate Professor and Senior Associate Researcher in the Centre for International Studies, Sciences Po, Paris and Professorial Fellow at the Vietnam National University, Hanoi