Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte concluded his rotational chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by hosting global leaders in Manila last November. The Filipino leader deftly leveraged the event to legitimize his international standing amid international outcry over his human rights record.

He warmly welcomed and held cordial exchanges with heads of state as well as chiefs of the United Nations and the European Union from across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. In attendance were U.S. president Donald Trump as well as prime ministers Shinzo Abe (Japan) and Narendra Modi (India), both seeking closer ties with the Filipino leader.

Crucially, the summit in Manila served as an opportunity for Duterte and Trump to hold their first formal bilateral meeting. The two allies not only managed to restore somewhat frayed U.S.-Philippine relations, mainly due to differences over human rights concerns, but also vowed to expand cooperation in areas of common interest, particularly on joint counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations.

Yet the greatest winner of Duterte’s ASEAN chairmanship was undoubtedly China. Despite its massive reclamation activities and increasing militarization of artificially-built islands across the South China Sea, Beijing invited no opprobrium from the Southeast Asian body. If anything, China managed to dictate not only the strategic tempo, but also the overall narrative about the disputes – namely, the situation is “generally stable”.

In a remarkable reflection of ASEAN’s acquiescence, the regional states agreed to instead focus on negotiating a Code of Conduct (COC), which increasingly looks like nothing short of a diplomatic trap for smaller claimant states. China also managed to convince ASEAN, under Duterte’s chairmanship, to discourage any involvement by external powers, namely the United States, in checking the Asian powerhouse’s strategic impunity in adjacent waters. Amid the 50th anniversary of its founding, ASEAN lost a great opportunity to get its act together and defend the legitimate interests of its members as well as safeguard maritime security in Asia.

Mending Fences

As expected, Duterte and Trump managed to build rapport and focused on how to keep the Philippine-U.S. alliance strong amid a rapidly shifting geopolitical environment. They spent considerable time on the North Korean crisis, on which ASEAN has taken a strong stance.

In its joint statement (PDF link), ASEAN expressed its “grave concerns” over “provocative and threatening actions” by North Korea. Given the historically strong trade and strategic linkages between Pyongyang and Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN’s buy-in has always been crucial to the effective implementation of the international sanctions regime.

The Philippines has already suspended all trade and financial transactions with the reclusive regime, while other Southeast Asian states are progressively downgrading their bilateral ties with Pyongyang. Nonetheless, Duterte encouraged continued diplomatic engagement between North Korea and the broader region via ASEAN mechanisms.

With the collapse of the Six Party Talks, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is now the sole regional multilateral mechanism by which Pyongyang directly interacts with major stakeholders. Duterte also beseeched Trump not to issue threats and escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Duterte and Trump also focused on areas of common concern, particularly on expanding bilateral counter-terror cooperation in light of the threat of transnational terrorism in Southeast Asia. Washington has vowed continued support for Manila’s efforts to neutralize Islamic State (IS)-affiliated elements in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao as well as expediting the reconstruction of post-conflict Marawi.

The two allies also discussed expanding counter-narcotics cooperation, with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) building the capacity of its Filipino counterparts to interdict large-scale import of illegal drugs, particularly from mainland China. Overall, Trump’s cordial meeting with Duterte managed to arrest the hemorrhage in the Philippine-US alliance, which heavily suffered due to the Barack Obama administration’s disagreements over the Philippine president’s brutal crackdown on illegal drugs.

China’s Ascendance

Yet, Trump didn’t manage to alter his Filipino counterpart’s calculus on China. If anything, as Duterte made clear shortly after his November 10 meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, he deems the South China Sea issue to be “better left untouched” by non-claimant parties, namely the United States and other key regional allies like Japan and Australia.

Much to the disappointment of regional states, Trump also failed to clarify America’s policy in the South China Sea. In a rather half-comical manner, the American leader offered to personally mediate the disputes, sounding as if he treated complex matters of national sovereignty and international security as real estate negotiations.

In response, ASEAN states politely stated that they would take Trump’s proposal into consideration—interpreting the American president’s statement as an abject lack of a clear national policy on one of the most vexing geopolitical challenges of our time. Trump also alienated much of the region by insisting on his neo-protectionist “America First” trade agenda.

China has astutely taken advantage of America’s leadership deficit by coaxing and cajoling its Southeast Asian neighbors into strategic subservience. In effect, Washington has placed zero trade initiatives on the table, just as Beijing forges ahead with a plethora of alluring multilateral trade and investment initiatives.

Relishing its rising economic influence, China has pressured ASEAN, under Duterte’s watch, to soft-pedal on the South China Sea disputes. Amid much fanfare, both sides hailed the successful test of the so-called “Hotline to Manage Maritime Emergencies in the South China Sea” among their foreign ministries while finalizing the framework of an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC).

The so-called Working Group Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC is set to meet in Vietnam early this year to translate the rudimentary framework into a final document. As the new ASEAN-China country coordinator, Manila will oversee the process of negotiations.

The problem, however, is there is no clear timetable on the negotiation of a “substantive and effective” COC. There is also no indication that it would end up as a legally binding document which addresses the root causes of the crisis: China’s coercive actions as well as expansive territorial and maritime claims against the fundamental principles of international law. The Philippines didn’t even bother to raise its own landmark arbitration award in the South China Sea, which should serve as a primary legal reference point for resolving the issue. In all likelihood, the COC negotiations are serving not only as a convenient diplomatic cover for China’s unilateral actions on the ground, but also as another step toward consigning the Philippines’ arbitration award to the dustbin of diplomatic history. The more the region talks about the COC, the less they discuss The Hague ruling.

Under Duterte’s watch, ASEAN has lost a crucial opportunity to hold China to account. More worryingly, it has undermined the regional body’s centrality in addressing one of the most vexing and potentially explosive flashpoints in the 21st century. The Trump administration’s tempestuous leadership and policy ambiguity haven’t helped, either.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.