As it prepares for its year at the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines has sent a thinly veiled message to the new administration in Washington: keep your fight with China out of ASEAN, thank you very much. Reuters:
Philippine defense minister Delfin Lorenzana told delegates from more than 20 countries at a security conference in Singapore that outside powers should not pursue their competition in the region.
“As the host to the leaders of the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and India, we will have to remind our friends, firmly if necessary, not to use ASEAN as a proxy for their rivalry,” Lorenzana said.
“We will reaffirm the unity and solidarity of ASEAN amidst this emerging super-power competition.”
The Philippines has been seeking to re-orient its policy toward Beijing and forge its own bilateral agreement on the South China Sea, and any antagonistic statements from ASEAN could only complicate that effort. And although the United States is not an ASEAN member state, the Obama Administration often worked through the forum as part of a multilateral effort to air grievances against China and assemble a coalition against its claims in the South China Sea. Beijing’s influence on Cambodia sometimes prevented official ASEAN rebukes of Chinese policy, but the institution’s members nonetheless grew more outspoken against China’s incursions under Obama’s watch, fueling the impression that Washington was using it as a proxy to balance against Beijing.
Manila probably sees in Trump a president who will more aggressively stand up to China on a bilateral basis, but who will back off from dragging other neighbors into the fight in multilateral institutions. And they’re probably right in their assessment: Trump’s instincts are diametrically opposed to Team Obama’s. From tearing up multilateral trade deals to goading China on Taiwan, Trump has shown a distinct preference for acting unilaterally, and little interest in patiently working through institutions, so the Philippines may well get their wish.
Still, there is likely to be some discord from ASEAN countries who want the United States to keep pressing the issue in that body. Trump’s relationship with China’s neighbors, in ASEAN and elsewhere, is something to watch.