MANILA — The Philippines will keep the contentious South China Sea territorial issue on the agenda at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year, but will also use its chairing of the 10-nation bloc to promote a major regional trade deal initiated by Beijing.
“The South China Sea issue is always a concern that can be raised by any ASEAN member in light of the joint communique that we have already made,” Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine foreign secretary, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday. “These issues can be brought up and we will be addressing them.”
President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed the Philippine presidency on June 30, has already put the maritime dispute on the back burner, and set aside a crucial international arbitration ruling in favor of Manila in July in an effort to rebuild ties with China.
Bilateral relations chilled in recent years when former President Benigno Aquino took the lead in opposing China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Thailand are the other members of the grouping.)
Duterte has chosen for now to go along with China’s preference for bilateral talks to resolve the dispute, creating concern about a weakening of ASEAN’s collective position. ASEAN has always been run by consensus, but has struggled in this instance because of unaffected countries like Cambodia and Laos being generally supportive of China.
Yasay described such concerns as “unfounded”, and said Manila would ensure that what has been agreed upon in the joint communique is carried out.
“[We will] not only keep the momentum, but [we will] build on it,” he said.
ASEAN was chaired in 2016 by Laos, and at a September summit in Vientiane leaders called for diplomatic and legal means to be used in finding a resolution. They requested the parties involved to avoid provocative actions that might escalate tensions, and called for freedom of navigation and over flight in the strategic waterway, which sees around $5 trillion worth of global trade pass through annually.
There have been clashes there in recent years as China transformed underwater features into artificial islands, complete with runways and military infrastructure.
In July, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands gave a decision on a petition lodged by the Philippines in 2013. It said that China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea had no legal or historical basis. China never recognized the court in Europe’s jurisdiction, and flatly rejected its finding.
In preparation for his chairmanship, Duterte has already made state visits to most ASEAN countries. He is due to travel to Thailand and Myanmar early next year, partly to discuss ASEAN affairs in 2017, the regional grouping’s 50th year.
According to Yasay, members have called for greater cooperation on trade and investment, maritime security, and countering extremism.
He said the Philippines, like Indonesia, want other prospective members to speed up talks on the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This follows the promised scuppering of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by Donald Trump, the U.S. president elect, who favors more protectionist trade policies.
“It is a matter of concern among ASEAN member states,” said Yasay. “Our department of trade and industry is very much engaged in negotiations to make sure that this will be an important part of the agenda in ASEAN.”
Carlos Dominguez, the Philippine finance minister, also recently expressed his support for RCEP on Dec. 26, and this is in line with Duterte’s efforts to improve trade ties among Asia-Pacific nations. “I personally would like to look at RCEP closely,” Dominguez said, noting its inclusion of all ASEAN countries.
RCEP is being proposed as a 16-nation free trade area comprising ASEAN and some key trading partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. TPP would have involved Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., and Vietnam.
During the interview, Yasay said the plight of Rohingya minority group in Myanmar, which has attracted global attention because of reports of killings and rape committed by soldiers, could be touched upon during ASEAN meetings.
“This is a domestic problem of Myanmar,” he said. “We have addressed it [but] there is nothing that prevents any ASEAN member state during our chairmanship [putting] this issue on the table should new developments warrant a discussion.”
Yasay said the Philippines will also use its time as the ASEAN chair to advance other issues, such as the regional war on drugs. An anti-drug campaign was a central plank in Duterte’s election manifesto, and has resulted in the summary killings of some 6,000 drug suspects in the last six months.