Over the weekend, the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held the Thirtieth ASEAN Summit, in Manila—the Philippines is the chair of ASEAN this year. As has become usual, much of the discussion before the summit centered on a potential joint statement about the South China Sea, which has become one of the most divisive issues in Southeast Asia. Countries growing closer to China, like Cambodia and Thailand (which also have no direct claims in the South China Sea), and those that have direct claims and are increasingly suspicious of Beijing’s activities, like Vietnam, have faced off over South China Sea statements at many ASEAN meetings. In addition, the summit provided an opportunity for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to play up his role as a statesman and host.
The fact that, over the weekend, U.S. President Donald Trump invited Duterte for a White House visit, essentially praising Duterte for his brutal approach to narcotics and claiming that the two had a very friendly chat, only further bolstered Duterte’s image in the region—and probably at home. Duterte, of course, then reacted with bizarre mixed messages, making it sound like he was too busy to visit the White House in the near future. This is probably bluster by the Philippine leader to make it clear that: he takes orders (or even invites) from no one; and, that he will continue to chart an independent foreign policy, even if he visits the White House.
Some of the winners from the summit:
While Southeast Asian states may still be divided about how to respond to China’s approach to the South China Sea—the region is witnessing a rapid arms race, led by countries like Vietnam, yet Beijing is supposedly pushing for a Code of Conduct, which seems to further befuddle many ASEAN nations—the ASEAN summit produced a relatively tepid statement on the Sea. In fact, the final statement was one of the most tepid on the South China Sea released by ASEAN in years.
As Rappler reported, “The ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on Sunday merely ‘took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments’ in the South China Sea.” Any discussion of China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea, which supposedly had been included in earlier drafts of the statement, was gone by the time the final statement was released. A reference to all parties respecting “legal and diplomatic processes” related to the South China Sea, essentially a reference to the need to respect last year’s Hague tribunal ruling, was gone by the time the final statement was released as well, another victory for Beijing. As the Cambodia Daily noted, the final statement also omitted a mention of China’s “militarization” of parts of the South China Sea and claimed that Southeast Asian states and China were cooperating more effectively on South China Sea issues—a dubious claim.
2. Rodrigo Duterte
Duterte seems to have incurred little public backlash in the Philippines for shifting Manila’s approach to the South China Sea and Beijing in general—a strategy that was on display in the weeks leading up to the summit, and possibly at the summit as well. Earlier in April, Duterte had vowed to visit Thitu, an island in a disputed area of the South China Sea. Reportedly after pressure from Beijing, he abruptly cancelled his visit to Thitu. On Duterte’s watch, the ASEAN Summit then ultimately released a statement sure to please Beijing. Yet Duterte’s high popularity ratings at home seem unchanged, even though some data also suggests that Philippine citizens desire a tough approach to protecting Philippine claims in the South China Sea.
3. Thailand’s Military
Timed to the ASEAN Summit, President Trump also called the leaders of Singapore and Thailand over the weekend and extended an invitation for a White House visit to them as well. The invitation for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was completely uncontroversial. But Thailand’s prime minister is coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, the path to future elections in Thailand still seems unclear, and the military essentially enshrined its long-term power over government with the new constitution; any return to real and robust democracy in the kingdom is far off. Yet Prayuth’s legitimacy, and the Thai military’s actions, are going to essentially be endorsed by the White House with a visit to Washington. To be sure, former president Barack Obama included Prayuth as part of the U.S.-ASEAN summit last year in California. But Obama could at least claim that Prayuth was invited as part of the entire group of ASEAN leaders. Inviting the coup leader to the White House individually connotes a stronger endorsement of Prayuth.