Duterte’s soft-pedalling on Beijing: Good for Manila, bad for Asean


Since his ascent to the presidency, Mr Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a remarkable reorientation in Philippine foreign policy. Promising an independent course that would “not be dependent on the United States”, the tough-talking Filipino leader has downgraded military cooperation with Washington and taken a radically divergent approach to Beijing.

Just hours after his inauguration on June 30 last year, Mr Duterte promised not to “flaunt” his country’s landmark arbitration case in the South China Sea to “taunt” China. Over the succeeding months, he prioritised the revival of frayed diplomatic ties with the Asian juggernaut to avoid conflict and entice large-scale Chinese infrastructure investments.

Against the backdrop of a burgeoning Sino-Philippine rapprochement, few expected Mr Duterte to take a tough stance on the South China Sea disputes during his tenure as the (rotational) chairman of Asean this year.

However, what caught most by surprise was the Filipino leader’s determined effort to shield China against any criticism, whether directly or indirectly. As a result, Asean, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, risks fading into irrelevance amid festering maritime disputes in the region.

Although Asean operates on a consensus-based decision-making process, the chairman has significant prerogative in setting the regional agenda. Reports suggest that during the recent Asean summit in Manila, Mr Duterte not only declined to raise the Philippines’ arbitration case, he also vetoed any reference to China’s massive reclamation activities, which have given birth to a sprawling network of military facilities in the high seas.