Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to skip the ASEAN-Australia commemorative summit did not come as a surprise. Despite the warm gesture extended by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull through a personal invitation, Duterte was unimpressed. Citing development issues as his main reason for staying put in Manila, Duterte is sending his top diplomat for the two-day summit instead. The firebrand leader’s decision to turn down the invite stems from his skepticism towards governments or states who have criticized his war on drugs.
But why is the absence of Duterte significant? The Philippines has been at the center of crucial developments in the region that mainly underscore regional security and stability. Duterte’s current foreign policy predispositions continue to facilitate China’s growing assertiveness, which aggravates the absence or lack of U.S. commitment in the region. Through the summit, Australia aims to buttress the declining international or regional order caused by the ongoing shift by engaging its immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia and key partners such as the Philippines.
Australia, for its part, views the conference as an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment of strengthening cooperation with its neighboring states through ASEAN as reflected on its Foreign Policy White paper published in 2017. It considers the active participation of the Philippines critical due to both states’ shared democratic values and history between its people.
As one of the longstanding American allies in Asia, it is in the key interest of Australia to ensure that the U.S. alliance framework in the region remains viable by engaging fellow U.S. allies like the Philippines. However difficult, Australia recognizes that it is only through the promulgation of shared values and expectations among American allies such as the Philippines that the U.S.-led order could be maintained and strengthened in Asia Pacific. Similarly, it is also in the best interest of the Philippines to maximize the forum to engage Australia and ASEAN in addressing its domestic and external security concerns.
The emergence of the ISIS-linked Maute group is a gamechanger in Asia’s regional security landscape. The city of Marawi has been liberated but the possible resurgence of the ISIS-affiliated group in the near or distant future remains feasible, thus Australia and the Philippines must seek new pathways that forgo stronger counterterrorism initiatives. As the second largest provider of military training to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), next to the United States, the Philippines is best advised to cooperate with Australia to build on existing bilateral education and military exercises with special focus on urban warfare tactics. Existing and future defense and military training through joint exercises conducted under the Defense Cooperation Program could also be expanded to regional counterterrorism cooperation.
Another shared concern among ASEAN states, especially the Philippines, and Australia is the ongoing militarization of the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea by China. In its Foreign Policy White Paper, Australia explicitly denounced efforts which use disputed features and artificial structures for military purposes. Recognizing the sea row as a flashpoint that could lead to outright conflict, Australia vouched to increase cooperation in maritime security capacity-building as well as strengthening bilateral ties. Australia has identified Vietnam as a strategic partner in bolstering confidence building measures. For its part, Vietnam has been proactively cultivating its relations with Australia, using such partnership as a hedging strategy against China. With the Philippines existing military relations with Australia, establishing maritime security cooperation will not be hard task. Existing military cooperation can be expanded to include confidence building in maritime cooperation.
Legally Binding Code of Conduct
In addition to these security partnerships, the summit could also review the development of the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) which will aid the Philippines and other ASEAN claimant states halt China’s ongoing reclamation and militarization activities. Despite its reluctance to raise the arbitral tribunal ruling against China, the Philippines’ active participation is crucial in making the COC legally binding and effective. The Philippines’ landmark victory could be utilized as a framework in crafting the COC that is consistent to international law. In multiple forums, Australia has consistently affirmed that the arbitration ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China sea ruling is binding among all parties.
Moreover, as Australia takes the lead in this summit, taking concrete steps in addressing the South China sea dispute could mitigate the continuous fracturing of ASEAN caused by this debilitating issue. However, this is a delicate path that Australia must thread. It must emphasize that consolidating ASEAN centrality on the maritime issue warrants the continuous relevance of membership in the regional institution.
Long Term Implications
The absence of Duterte presents a missed opportunity not just for the Philippines but also for ASEAN as a whole. Notwithstanding the differences in political views, Duterte’s behavior presents a far more worrying trend toward the Philippines’ “selective” engagement with its foreign allies and partners. Duterte’s selective attitude especially among the Philippines’ longest allies and partners like Australia continues to damage the country’s longstanding partnerships which have a far-reaching implication even after his term expires. His personal irritation regarding any criticism levied against his war on drugs comes with the hefty price of disparaging the view of the Philippines as a viable partner in addressing security concerns while maximizing economic opportunities.
Mark Manantan is a research graduate from the Australian National University. His research interests include US alliance politics, Philippine foreign policy, and middle power activism in the Asia-Pacific.