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Pivot to Asia
Bad Optics

The optics of the grand finale of President Obama’s trip to Asia left something to be desired. The Wall Street Journal:

Over a three-day summit that ended Thursday, leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations…reiterated calls for compliance with international law in handling territorial disputes with China, using a moderate tone that Beijing prefers.

Even the Philippines, which filed the arbitration case against China that yielded the ruling in July at a tribunal at The Hague, failed to mention the matter during a high-profile meeting on Thursday that included leaders from Asia and the U.S. In the closed-door meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Beijing to comply with the verdict, which rejected Chinese claims to historic and economic rights across a wide swath of the South China Sea.

Asean’s reticence in discussing the ruling contrasted with Mr. Obama’s outspokenness on a legal case that Beijing has repeatedly denounced. Chinese diplomats seized on the divergence in rhetoric, claiming that the U.S. was trying to play up an issue that Asean has already moved on from.

The reason for the Philippines’ decision has a lot to do with its volatile new President, Rodrigo Duterte, an instinctive, brash populist with a taste for anti-American rhetoric. As the Wall Street Journal elsewhere noted, however, Duterte himself seems unsure of what to do with his victory in the arbitration court in the Hague, which was initiated by his predecessor:

He could insist that he will only negotiate with Beijing on the basis of the verdict of the arbitration panel at The Hague, which excoriated Beijing for building artificial islands in The Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Or he could use the verdict as leverage in talks over sharing resources—fisheries and energy—off the Philippines coast. Or he could cave completely and set the verdict aside in hopes that this will unlock a wave of Chinese investment, particularly in his home region of Mindanao.

ASEAN often ends up prevaricating in its final pronouncements, so we shouldn’t read too much geopolitical significance into yet one more milquetoast statement from the organization. Nevertheless, for an Obama Administration seeking to cement its middling legacy in Asia, China crowing over a diplomatic setback for the United States cannot be a pleasant sight.

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