This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Philippines’ role as chair in this landmark year would be significant under any circumstances, but a leadership role during such a crucial time for the regional body puts Manila in a highly influential position.

ASEAN has come a long way since its founding. It plays a major part in promoting peaceful resolution of disputes between member-states. Its free trade area now reduces tariff rates on intra-regional trade to almost zero, and the organization is looking at establishing a common market within the next decade.

But disagreements over broader regional security concerns, particularly the South China Sea disputes, are threatening to tear the regional body apart. The Philippines has been at the forefront of promoting ASEAN centrality on maritime disputes. Time and again, Manila has sought to rally (often with limited success) fellow Southeast Asian states against China’s unilateral and coercive actions toward smaller claimant states.

During the February 21 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in the Philippines, member states expressed unanimous concern over the “very unsettling” militarization of maritime disputes. Though they didn’t directly mention China, ASEAN members were concerned about China’s deployment of increasingly sophisticated weapons system to its expansive network of artificial islands across the South China Sea. Southeast Asian foreign ministers reiterated the need for the establishment of a legally-binding code of conduct to govern the behavior of claimant states in accordance with shared norms and international law.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy recalibration, however, creates some uncertainty over the direction of the regional body this year. Since taking power, he has relegated maritime spats to the sidelines in favor of deeper economic engagement with China. While such country-level pragmatic calculations may contribute to more peaceful relations among claimant states, there is a clear risk of ASEAN falling into total irrelevance as China shapes the regional agenda on its own terms.

Mixed Record

To its credit, ASEAN can proudly reflect on its commendable record of peacefully managing disputes among an expanding membership, which now covers almost all nations in mainland and maritime Southeast Asia (Timor Leste’s membership is still under consideration).

ASEAN can also hang its hat on the earlier-than-expected implementation of its Free Trade Area, raising hopes for the establishment of an ASEAN Common Market combining elements of a customs union with full labor and capital mobility across regional economies. Myriad territorial and maritime disputes among Southeast Asian states have been managed, if not fully settled, based on dialogue and international legal instruments.

But ASEAN has shown signs of institutional paralysis over the South China Sea disputes, the primary security challenge in the region. On the ground, China has radically redrawn the strategic landscape, thanks to massive reclamation activities across the hotly contested Spratly Islands, coercive usurpation of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, expanded military and paramilitary presence across disputed waters, and harassment of energy exploration and fishing activities by other claimant states.

In spite of all this, ASEAN has constantly failed to directly criticize China. Though it expressed “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” and alluded to “universally recognized principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea” in its joint statements, ASEAN was unable to mention the Philippines’ landmark arbitration case against China for fear of upsetting Beijing.

Consolation Prize

The primary problem is that external actors have hijacked the consensus-based decision-making principle of ASEAN. As one veteran Singaporean diplomat bluntly put it, China is exerting “its influence on ASEAN members to prevent any decisions which could affect its preference for bilateral negotiations” in the South China Sea.

In a region where “the foremost priority for ASEAN national leaders in the foreseeable future [is] making strong nations and states at home to preserve their hold on power,” it is difficult to expect any consensus on the South China Sea issue. Fifteen years since the signing of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, ASEAN is still struggling to forge a framework for a code of conduct.

Despite reassurances by the Philippines to fast-track the negotiation of that framework, an eventual consensus is far from certain. Absent a breakthrough on the multilateral front, Southeast Asian claimant countries could at least finalize a code of conduct among themselves and push China to join, rather than putting up with a seemingly endless process of fruitless negotiations.

The Duterte administration, however, would prefer that the region focus on “consensus issues” and leave the disputes to bilateral resolution. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay has made it clear that the Philippines will not raise the arbitral ruling in regional discussions during its tenure as chair, since only a few ASEAN members would support it.

Facing growing concerns over maritime piracy and the expansion of the so-called Islamic State into Southeast Asia, Duterte is expected to push for greater intelligence sharing and tactical cooperation among affected nations. To this end, his administration is readying a Manila Declaration to Combat the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism.

With the Philippines embroiled in a months-long “war on drugs,” Duterte is expected to put multilateral cooperation against transnational crimes and illegal drugs at the center of his regional agenda. That way he can add a veneer of legitimacy to his controversial policies at home, which have faced an increasingly mobilized opposition. The Duterte administration will also likely take advantage of recent regional development initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to promote greater intra-regional economic and infrastructure connectivity with Chinese capital and know-how.

Barring a major disruptive event, Duterte’s chairmanship of ASEAN could see the South China Sea dispute largely subordinated to other areas of common regional concern. While this could promote more peaceful and cooperative relationships among regional states, ASEAN – the supposed driver of regional integration — could soon find itself completely sidelined in the biggest security challenge in Southeast Asia.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.