18 February 2019
US President Donald Trump  has invited the leaders of Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines to the White house in a move to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asia and counter the growing influence of China in the region. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump has invited the leaders of Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines to the White house in a move to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asia and counter the growing influence of China in the region. Photo: Reuters

ASEAN softens China stand as US belatedly beckons

What a difference a year makes. Last year, at the 29th ASEAN summit in Laos, a Chairman’s Statement, without mentioning China, “took note of concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the area”.

While the leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations were careful not to criticize China by name, they let it be known that Chinese actions had eroded trust and raised tensions.

But even such subdued voicing of concern over Chinese actions was missing from this year’s statement, issued Sunday in Manila after the 30th summit was held under the chairmanship of the Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office last summer, visited Beijing in October and there dramatically announced “my separation from the United States”.

Since then, he has gone to great lengths to woo China. Duterte announced that he would not mention in the Chairman’s Statement a ruling by a Hague arbitral tribunal that rebuked China for its construction of artificial islands and found its claims to sovereignty over the waters without legal merit. The case was brought by Duterte’s predecessor.

Since then, China has succeeded to a large extent in taming ASEAN, especially when the new Trump administration flailed about aimlessly, neglecting Southeast Asia.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in January said: “Countries that have disputes with China over the South China Sea have come to an agreement with us that these disputes should be peacefully resolved through consultation and negotiation with parties directly concerned… This hard-won situation is worth cherishing.”

The Chairman’s Statement last weekend underwent several drafts and, it seems clear, China successfully brought its influence to bear. An earlier draft included mention of land reclamation and militarization. However, both terms are absent from the final statement.

Agence France-Presse reported that the Chinese embassy had asked Manila not to mention international law and to remove the phrase “respect for legal and diplomatic processes”, which could be taken to refer to the arbitral ruling. The phrase was removed from the section on the South China Sea, but it appears in the section on “ASEAN Community Building and the Way Forward.” ASEAN is marking its 50th anniversary this year.

Now, the US is trying to make up for lost ground. Over the weekend, President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with both the prime minister of Singapore and Thailand and invited them to the White House. But the most significant call he made was to President Duterte.

Barack Obama had criticized Duterte over human rights, which earned him a curse from the Philippine leader. But, after Trump’s election, Duterte and the new American leader hit it off, with Trump praising Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, which has resulted in thousands of deaths.

They spoke on the phone again Saturday night, during which they discussed North Korea, regional security and ASEAN. According to the White House, they also discussed “the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world”.

Trump invited Duterte to visit the White House “to discuss the importance of the United States-Philippines alliance, which is now heading in a very positive direction”.

Trump is scheduled to visit the Philippines in November to take part in the East Asia Summit and the US-ASEAN summit. That month, he will also be in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting.

Vice President Mike Pence, while in Asia last week, confirmed that Trump would attend the ASEAN meetings as a sign of “unwavering commitment” to the region. The region is a powerhouse in its own right. If it were one country, ASEAN would be the world’s sixth largest economy and is continuing to rise.

It is unclear to what extent this belated US effort to regain lost ground will succeed, especially since Trump pulled the US out of a 12-nation Pacific trade deal, which included four Southeast Asian countries.

Last month Duterte, in Myanmar, said while he wants to enhance relations with Trump and is ready to “give all”, it was “short of military alliances. I don’t like that. We can’t handle those.”

If Trump manages to salvage the US-Philippine alliance despite Duterte’s pledge in China to join Beijing and Moscow to face down the rest of the world, it will be a well-deserved feather in his diplomatic cap. China will be watching closely the development of events.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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