JAKARTA, Indonesia — Things went very well for President Rodrigo Duterte as the Philippines put on the 30th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which ended early Sunday morning in Manila.
None of the other nine members of the regional bloc chose to press the host on a brutal drug war that has led to thousands of deaths, as Amnesty International urged them to do this week. On the contrary, he was able to bask in the spotlight as he hosted a news conference late Saturday, cracking jokes and posing for selfies as he casually bragged that he expected a call from President Trump after dinner.
On the thorny issue of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, ASEAN released a statement with no reference to a 2016 United Nations ruling against Beijing, signaling that many of Southeast Asia's leaders agree with Duterte's warmer approach to China.
Then, the White House itself delivered the pièce de résistance in Duterte's show of power and influence, confirming that Trump had spoken with Duterte and invited him to the White House. Rather than mention the estimated 8,000 dead in the drug war since Duterte took office or widespread accusations of extrajudicial killings, the White House said in a statement that the two leaders discussed “the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries around the world.”
Analysts said that many of Duterte's neighbors are willing to go along with his approach because they put the economic benefits Beijing can offer above geopolitical concerns, and it's still not clear to many leaders how Trump's government will actually interact with the region.
On a recent visit to Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, Vice President Pence announced that Trump will attend an ASEAN meeting in November, which the Philippines will also host in its role as rotating chair.
“Given the structure of ASEAN, it was never likely that other members would publicly take a stand on Duterte's alleged abuses,” said Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a professor at Ateneo de Manila university studying regional geopolitics, pointing out that respect for human rights and democracy was far from universal in the Southeast Asia. “But the South China Sea issue is a fundamental issue for ASEAN, and Duterte's more conciliatory tone resonates with a number of countries. First, there are obvious economic benefits to working with China, while we don't know which of Trump's rhetoric will lead to real policy here. At the same time, direct confrontation and even a successful [U.N.] arbitration process did not actually stop China from expanding just as they intended, and there's some loss of confidence in the capability of the U.S. to provide regional security.”
It is unlikely there was unanimous support for soft-pedaling Chinese land reclamation and militarization, however. Agence France-Press reported Saturday that Duterte was facing pushback on the final statement, which was released much later than planned. “It can't be seen that ASEAN has totally given in to Chinese pressure,” one diplomat reportedly told AFP.
Vietnam has traditionally been the most vocal in opposition to Chinese expansion, while Singapore, Indonesia and sometimes Brunei have more quietly expressed concerns, said Evan A. Laksmana, an international security researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Jakarta.
The White House statement, released just as Duterte apparently pushed his region closer to China, has been hard to interpret here.
“Given the hugely controversial nature of Duterte's approach to eradicating drugs, the White House statement could be seen as implicit support, but perhaps is better understood as offering common ground for engaging with Duterte,” said Natalie Sambhi, a research fellow at the Perth USAsia Center in Australia. “The ASEAN chairman's statement will no doubt be disappointing to the Southeast Asian states looking for a stronger and more united front on China's militarization.”
As the United States and China grapple for influence in the 21st century, Southeast Asia may be facing a choice between a known and an unknown quantity, Laksmana said.
“Many countries in the region deeply feel the need for infrastructure and economic development,” which is something China can provide, he said. “But Washington is in a holding pattern, and Southeast Asia has noticed that Washington is in a holding pattern.”