(As published in The Manila Times, Thursday, February 21)
One of the key reasons Southeast Asia is the worldâ€™s most economically-promising region is the strength and stability of the regional multilateral partnership, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With the debatable exception of the European Union, no other multinational cooperative in the world performs as effectively in promoting the common interests of its members, almost always to everyoneâ€™s mutual benefit, and in helping to solve local disputes with a minimum of disruption and collateral damage.
Or at least that was the case, before Benigno S Aquino 3rd assumed the presidency of the Philippines in 2010 and, for reasons known only to him but which would probably not make any sense whatsoever even if he did share them, embarked on a campaign to undermine the regional bloc of which his country was a founding member.
The big issue as far as the Philippines is concerned, of course, is Chinaâ€™s â€œencroachmentâ€ on disputed territory in the South China Sea. Unhappy with what is perceived to be a lack of support from the ASEAN neighbors, the Aquino Administration has raised the matter to the United Nations, calling for an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) agreement. Most rational observers consider this move utterly futile. Both the Philippines and China, while signatories to the agreement, reject any use of it to determine the extent of national sovereignty, which is exactly what the Philippines is asking the UN to do.
In the process of pursuing the Philippinesâ€™ counterclaim to the disputed areas in the South China Sea, Aquino has managed to offend his ASEAN colleagues a number of times. In September of last year, a spurious claim that the Prime Minister of Singapore â€œexpressed support for the Philippines in the West Philippine Seaâ€ issue drew a sharp public rebuke from the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At a meeting of the ASEAN leaders two months later, Aquino publicly contradicted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a press conference when the latter stated that the group had agreed in principle to a common set of guidelines for conduct in the South China Sea. And just last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Aquino wasted his only opportunity to speak at an official session to stammer out a statement favoring US involvement in Southeast Asia as a check against Chinese ambition, quickly drawing fire from the other ASEAN leaders in attendance â€“ among them Malaysian PM Najib Razak, the deputy Prime Ministers of Thailand and Laos, and the Vice President of Myanmar â€“ who pointed out it was in the ASEANâ€™s best interests not to favor one power over another.
And while reacting petulantly to Chinaâ€™s recent printing of passports bearing a map showing the infamous â€œnine-dash line,â€ the Philippines had produced the same kind of â€œinsult,â€ as respected international political scholar B.A. Hamzah, writing in the New Straits Times two weeks ago, pointed out. â€œIncidentally, its new official map that has renamed the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea has re-incorporated Sabah, which is sure to reopen old wounds,â€ Hamzah explained, adding, â€œPeople who live in glass houses should not throw stones, as they will expose not only the throwersâ€™ hypocrisy but also vulnerability.â€
Further aggravating the relationship with Malaysia is the standoff in Sabah between Malaysian forces and a ragtag â€œRoyal Army of Suluâ€ who invaded an island off the coast of Sabah to â€œenforceâ€ the Sultanate of Suluâ€™s claim to the Malaysian state. Except to express concern for the â€œsafety of the Filipinos in Sabah,â€ the Administration has done nothing to reassure the Malaysian government over the gross violation of its sovereignty that even the Philippines tacitly recognizes, as this country has not officially recognized a Sulu Sultan (despite there being dozens of claimants to the title, most of whom hold court in various hotels in Kota Kinabalu) since the death of Sultan Mahakutta Kiram in 1986.
The unaccountable posturing of MalacaÃ±ang at the expense of its productive relationship with the rest of the ASEAN bloc will, if it does not stop, further isolate the Philippines from the regional economic environment. One thing that policymakers in this country have never really grasped is that, because of the relative economic, political, and geographical cohesiveness of the ASEAN group, investors take a regional approach to assessing opportunities in Southeast Asia, and choose particular countries according to their own needs and objectives. One of those objectives usually is to access opportunities for regional expansion, whether physically or through access to different markets.
While a lot of intraregional politics can be ignored by most business interests, the souring relationship between the Philippines and the rest of the ASEAN cannot, because of the weak dispute resolution process in the ASEAN Free Trade Area framework, which will come into full force in 2015: Since the ASEAN Secretariat has no jurisdiction to mediate trade disputes, these must be handled by arrangements between the countries in conflict, something that is obviously much easier if the countries in question are otherwise getting along reasonably well.
Already shut out of the potential Trans-Pacific Partnership, futilely clinging onto a â€œspecial relationshipâ€ with a United States that not only will soon (as soon as next month, in fact) be cutting spending on all forms of aid but has also all but written off bilateralism in foreign and trade policy, and having poisoned its relations with its strongest and wealthiest regional neighbor, China, the Aquino Administration has inexplicably chosen to set fire to its last possible bridge by antagonizing the rest of the ASEAN group. It is a costly mistake, and one that will take a lot longer than the remaining three years of the Presidentâ€™s term to correct.
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