As I wrote last week, while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was set to attend his first ever round of ASEAN summitry in Laos next month, there was still lingering speculation about the other Southeast Asian countries he might also visit as part of a wider ASEAN tour (See: “Philippines’ Duterte to Attend ASEAN Meetings in Laos”).
On Tuesday, local media reports suggested that Duterte’s first foreign trip abroad would include Brunei, Laos and Cambodia and last from September 4 to 9 (Malaysia, which was also rumored to be a stop, seems to have been left out). Though details are still quite patchy about what items will be on the agenda, it is worth looking at what we know thus far.
Duterte will begin his trip in the tiny, oil-rich sultanate of Brunei from September 4-5, move to Laos for regional meetings from September 6-8, and then visit Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest state, before returning home.
One item on the agenda which Duterte has himself highlighted is the treatment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). He told reporters that he planned to personally thank the Sultan of Brunei for taking care of the many overseas Filipino workers in the country. OFWs are a significant group in the Philippine context, with their remittances said to constitute around 10 percent of Philippine GDP.
Another will be economic ties. Beyond trying to expand this component of bilateral relationships, it will be interesting to see whether there is any movement on other specific items like the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area Initiative BIMP-EAGA), a subregional initiative founded in 1994 in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City. The Philippines will be serving as the chair of BIMP-EAGA beginning in September 2016 and ASEAN chair starting in January 2017, giving the Duterte administration an opportunity to engage on the subregional and regional fronts (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”).
On the security side, the South China Sea will be a subject of discussion whether or not Duterte wants it to be, since the issue has assumed regional and global significance over the past few years. Duterte’s approach to the issue has been troubling in a number of ways, and he has recently said that he would rather stay silent on the issue than risk undermining the success of negotiations with China (See: “The Danger of Duterte’s China and South China Sea Approach“). This is especially the case in the upcoming round of ASEAN regional summitry in Laos (See: “Laos in the ASEAN Spotlight: Opportunities and Challenges”). Observers will be looking to see how ASEAN is able to deal with the issue, whether it be through substantive proposals or wordings in joint statements (See: “Assessing ASEAN’s South China Sea Position in its Post-Ruling Statement”).
But the other two countries that Duterte is visiting are also hardly disinterested in the South China Sea: Brunei is a claimant, albeit a quiet one, while Indonesia is not technically a claimant but is nonetheless an interested party since China’s nine-dash line overlaps with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the resource-rich Natuna Islands. (See: “Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium”).
Beyond the South China Sea, the hot topic of trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines in the Sulu Sea will likely be a key item on the agenda (See: “New Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols Officially Launched in Indonesia”). Terrorism will also probably factor into things as well given growing anxieties about the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia.
Non-traditional security challenges – too often neglected by outside commentators too fixated on the South China Sea – will also likely be discussed. Though these are usually said to serve as a basis for common ground among states, in this case observers will be looking harder for divergences, especially when it comes to the issue of drug trafficking. Indonesia under Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been carrying out a series of controversial executions of foreign drug convicts on death row, and the Philippine media has been pressing Duterte on whether he will address the case of the Filipino woman Mary Jane Veloso.
Thus far, Duterte has been coy about the issue. At a recent press conference, he declined to speculate, saying that he would rather be private about such “sensitive” issues. The case is far from a black and white one, particularly since Duterte himself has embarked on a tough drug crackdown at home and is pushing for a revival of the death penalty in the Philippines as well.