At Duterte’s table they talked, and won

The gala dinner for the ASEAN delegates convening in Manila and their dialogue partners the United States, India, China and a host of others including Canada was unprecedented—and it wasn’t only because of the barongs and other niceties.

The symbolism of their arrival in the country marks a watershed, achieving a favorable diplomatic outcome that the previous Philippine administration was unable to achieve with its harsh stance taking China to the International arbitral court. Unfortunately, the writing on the wall was largely ignored: that China would never, understandably, respect that outcome.

All the Western parties that backed such a move did so by having the Philippines front it. We were their willing pawn, a fall guy, if you will. 

China has known that it cannot act like a bully across the shipping lanes inherently involved in the dispute, because its own trade positions depend on the free flow of shipping. The previous American adminitration took a hard line and rattled sabres, to the point of organizing a trans pacific partnership to keep itself relevant in a region thousands of miles away from its farthest frontier. For its part, the ASEAN knows that it cannot compromise its favorable trade relationship with the next economic superpower. The absence of any joint communiqué by the regional grouping to uphold the arbitral ruling’s decision is proof of this perspective.

Thus, the key outcome of the ASEAN Summit in Manila can be described as the affirmation of the foreign policy rebalance of the Philippines away from the arbitral ruling and deliberately pivoting towards China, effectiely rebuking an old ally, the United States.

After a year of wrangling and second-guessing especially in the community of analysts and the foreign press, what emerged is a shift from the old US position that asserted itself strongly in the contested waters. to one that offers a diplomatic hand to mediate the disputes. Likewise, a response from China to respect peace and Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea was achieved after bilateral talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Duterte. This emergent “rebalance” is favorable to the ASEAN, a win-win that ushers a new era in South China Sea diplomacy.

This development not only re-positions the Philippines on the physical crossroads of an important region. More importantly, it redefines the country and its leadership as the geopolitical vector that has diffused tensions and pointed a way forward. A new world order seems to be emerging. And Filipinos should be proud.

What matters now is to monitor how exactly these heretofore competing powers will behave in light of the meeting, and whether or not trade and shipping will indeed flow as smoothly as promised by all parties. 

(PHOTO: President Duterte clinks glasses with US President Donald Trump after the former proposed a toast during the gala dinner hosted by the Philippines for the leaders of the ASEAN member states and dialogue partners at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City on November 12. Joining the President is his partner Honeylet. KARL NORMAN ALONZO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO)