US President Donald Trump on the phone in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

One week after the Philippines openly challenged China’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte buckled under Beijing’s pressure against taking a similarly tough stand as host of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting held in Manila.

On Sunday, Asean released a joint communique that was considerably softer than an initial draft that proposed to mention China’s “militarization” and “island-building” in the contested maritime area. Southeast Asian states, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have territorial disputes with Beijing.

Duterte, acting as this year’s Asean chairman, not only refused to raise the Philippines’ landmark international arbitration case win against China last year, a precedent some Asean members angled to cite, but also vetoed proposals by fellow claimants, particularly Vietnam, to critically mention China’s massive reclamation activities in the Spratly islands.

Construction on Mischief Reef, in the Spratly Islands in a satellite image released by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Photo: CSIS/AMTI DigitalGlobe/via Reuters

The reclamation activities, including the construction of military facilities on contested sea features, have raised concerns around the region and beyond, including in the United States. During the diplomatic wrangling over the joint statement, US President Donald Trump called Duterte to personally invite hime to visit the White House to discuss the “importance” of the two sides’ strategic alliance.

Duterte has backed away from certain strategic commitments his pro-US predecessor Benigno Aquino made to Washington, including allowances for the US to build up military facilities on the South China Sea-facing Philippine island of Palawan. A US position at Palawan would give the US a key beachhead for monitoring the maritime area.

Duterte openly jousted with previous US leader Barack Obama, who was critical of his lethal anti-drug campaign that has reportedly resulted in the deaths of over 7,500 drug suspects. Duterte had threatened to “break up” with American under Obama. Days ahead of the Asean summit, Duterte downgraded planned bilateral war games with the US to focus solely on humanitarian drills.

Filipino activists burn a portrait of US President Donald Trump during a protest in metro Manila, Philippines February 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Trump signaled a diplomatic change in tone during what he referred to as a “very friendly” personal phone call by noting that Duterte was “fighting very hard to rid [his] country of drugs.” In December, Duterte released a statement that claimed Trump had said his government was fighting against drugs “the right way.”

In the run-up to the Asean confab, a Filipino lawyer filed a crimes against humanity complaint at The Hague’s International Criminal Court against Duterte and a dozen top officials for their alleged roles in the drug war’s extrajudicial killings. Duterte shrugged off the complaint even though the Philippines is under the ICC’s jurisdiction as a signatory of the Rome Statute.     

Clearly, certain Asean members expected their Philippine host to take a more robust stand vis-à-vis China on the South China Sea issue. The week before the summit, Philippine defense officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, visited the Thitu island that Manila has long administered but China also considers part of its territory. 

Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the Philippine occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands on April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

“Your president has defined the outcome,” a diplomat from one of the key Asean countries told Filipino news channel ABS-CBN after apparent tough negotiations over the precise language of the final joint statement. “Some are frustrated over the turn of events.”

An exasperated Filipino diplomat lamented how the Philippines is “being lumped together with Cambodia and Laos in protecting Chinese interests (in Asean) at all costs.” Both small Southeast Asian countries receive significant aid and assistance from Beijing and are widely viewed as proxies for China’s interests in Asean.   

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had earlier called for a firmer and unified regional response to the South China Sea disputes. “The South China Sea is one of the issues that we need to solve immediately,” urged the Indonesian leader. “I think we need to have a common stand.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace ahead of the Asean summit in Manila, Philippines April 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Indonesia has been troubled by growing Chinese coast guard and illegal fishing presence in its claimed waters, particularly around the hydrocarbon-rich Natuna Islands.

In response, Indonesia has adopted an aggressive “sink boat” policy of apprehended Chinese fishing boats and rapidly bulked up its military presence close to contested areas. Other Asean countries, from Vietnam to Malaysia to Singapore, have also advocated for a more coherent Asean response to the disputes.

Duterte, however, seemed more eager to preserve his ongoing rapprochement with Beijing, which has offered though not yet delivered rich trade and investment deals to Manila since Duterte rose to power in mid-2016, than lead a unified Asean position. He said in the run-up to the meeting that it was “pointless” to provoke China on the disputes. 

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte upon concluding the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines April 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Domestically, Duterte has already come under criticism for not leveraging the Philippines one-year stint as Asean’s chairman to challenge China’s growing military footprint in contested areas, particularly in the Spratly islands, through coalition-building among regional partners.

Manila occupies eight contested islands and is deeply worried about the prospects of Beijing establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that could have major implications for future freedom of navigation in the contested area.

Later this month Duterte is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the One Road, One Belt mega summit, where the two neighbors are expected to discuss a multi-billion-dollar package of Chinese investments in Philippine infrastructure, including a modern rail line for Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

By taking a softer than expected stance at the Asean summit, Duterte clearly hopes to secure more concessions from China, both in terms of economic incentives and easier access for Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea, including in Chinese-administered areas such as the nearby Scarborough Shoal.

But he runs the risk of rendering Asean irrelevant in managing the disputes at a time Beijing is fast consolidating a military position in the contested maritime region and sparking more dissent at home against his perceived as soft stance on an emotive issue of national sovereignty.

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