Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr says the Philippines aims to strengthen ASEAN’s centrality as its chair in 2017, which is the 50th anniversary of Southeast Asia’s key regional grouping.
In addition, he points out that the Philippines aims to contribute to easing tensions in the South China Sea by speeding up the snail-paced emergence of a legally binding Code of Conduct of Parties in those disputed waters from what has been in place since 2002: a non-binding declaration that has largely had moral force.
In this December 2016 chat with Vera Files’ Charmaine Deogracias, done for the Reporting ASEAN series, the 69-year-old Yasay says the Philippines will stand by its “recalibrated” independent foreign policy – away from its historically closer leanings to the United States. This relates directly to how the country will carry out its selected theme of ‘partnering for change, engaging the world’ for the ASEAN chairmanship, he adds.
A former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission who made a bid for the vice presidency in 2010, Yasay was an early Cabinet choice for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a dormitory roommate. A former director of the collapsed local bank called Banco Filipino, Yasay is being considered for the post of Central Bank governor, media reports say.
Vera Files: What change will the Philippine chairmanship bring into and bring out of ASEAN at 50?
A: When you are looking at partnering for change, you’re really looking at the situation in ASEAN. It is so dynamic. It continually changes and these changes are challenging by themselves. Of course, you have this situation involving the dispute in the South China Sea. You also are engaged in making sure that no one is left out in the economic development of all the countries concerned. You’re looking at the situation, for example in the Philippines, where you are trying to resolve certain disputes, the peace and order situation, that will certainly have an impact in the region because it impacts on the stability of the region. You have a situation in Myanmar and then you have also a desire for countries like Brunei to sort of deviate from its dependency on oil and get into closer relationships, diversification of its economy, fostering a lot of agricultural relationships. This is the kind of partnering that we would like to have, and engaging the world.
We want to make sure that the idea of ASEAN centrality and solidarity is given focus. When we talk about ASEAN centrality, this is the one of the most important regions in the world right now and we would like to make sure that in acting as partners for change, we will be unified; we will be thinking as one.
One of the challenges we’ve encountered even from before the decision of the arbitral tribunal with respect to the South China Sea was how we could get a joint statement or a joint communiqué on the issues involved. But in response to that situation, despite resistance in the past, we were able to come up with a unified statement that really put back to the fore the centrality, the solidarity and the unity of ASEAN that we are proud of. So these are the things that we would like to really focus on.
The Philippines has embarked on the realignment of its independent foreign policy, where we want to make sure, recognizing of course that in carrying out their respective independent foreign policies, what will always be paramount would be the national interest of the country involved. But we see that there will be a convergence of mutuality of interest where we would like to make sure that we will capitalize on. There might be conflicts or divergence in so far as our respective national interests are concerned. We’re willing to put that aside, not to focus on it but rather focus on the mutuality of interest that we would be working on.
For instance in dealing with China, we know that we won’t be able to settle our disputes with China in so far as the contested areas in the South China Sea is concerned, perhaps not during this generation of ours, but then as you can see, the dispute is not the sum total of our relationship with China. We have to somehow engage ourselves in the other areas of that relationship, in trade, investment, infrastructure development, people-to-people contacts, cultural exchanges and the like which, if we pursue, will be to our mutual benefit. Somehow, engaging in confidence building measures will hopefully make it easier for us to deal with our disputes when the right time comes in the future.
So these are things that we would like to focus on when we say partnering for change, engaging the world. We would like to call on our partners – dialogue partners like the US, the EU, China particularly Japan that are not members of ASEAN but dialogue partners that are very important to us – to be part of this process of making sure our efforts in making ASEAN a successful regional group that will establish the peace and stability of this region will become a reality.
Vera Files: What will be the centerpiece message of the Philippines’ chairmanship this time?
A: Well, we’re celebrating our 50th year of ASEAN membership – we refer to it as the golden anniversary (of ASEAN). . . . We are confident that (in) our desire to give focus on ASEAN as that special regional group, we’d be working together toward our mutual advancement. We will really play a very significant role, something that I am sure has never really happened in the past. Even regional issue that involved Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the BIMP-EAGA (Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area) – that we would like to strengthen as part of our efforts. We are now engaging in a lot of multilateral talks with these countries in so far as revitalizing, reviving the objectives of BIMP-EAGA, recognizing that our disputes for instance with some of these countries like Malaysia will be best resolved once you are able to ensure and assure the advancement of the peoples in this region. They will no longer be focusing on the disputes and they will be thinking about how we can work together in making our lives even better as we move forward in fostering this kind of relationship. We don’t think about dramatic changes; we don’t think about something that is earth-shaking. We just want to make sure that this part of the world will enjoy a future of peace and stability. We have worked towards making our maritime security a reality as well. We know that 65 percent of the trade of the world goes through the South China Sea and this is something that ASEAN as a whole would like to protect and ensure not only for ourselves, but also for the rest of the international community that ply this route. And we’re very confident that as we engage ourselves with each other, we also try to engage the other countries, making sure that everyone is our friend, the important focus being that we would like everyone to treat everybody with mutual respect and as sovereign.
Vera Files: As chair of ASEAN, how will the Philippines steer the issue of the South China Sea against the backdrop of the arbitral ruling, and what do you hope to achieve this time?
A: In the South China Sea, we are more concerned now about moving forward from the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) that we forged earlier unanimously, by consensus of all of the members of ASEAN with China. We wanted to make sure that in the course of our chairmanship in 2017, we would be able to fast-track the establishment of the Code of Conduct (COC). . . . This is what we are pushing for and China has been very cooperative in this respect, so these are the commonalities that we would like to think about. Of course we know that in so far as our dispute with China is concerned, in so far as Vietnam’s dispute with China is concerned, Malaysia’s dispute with China is concerned, Indonesia’s dispute – all of these will be resolved by bilateral engagement with the countries concerned.
But the most important thing is that ASEAN has agreed to pursue a code of conduct that will govern all of the ASEAN member states in connection with China. This is something that we would like to achieve first and foremost, and I think personally that this will make it easy for us to proceed in so far as our bilateral engagements in the future are concerned.
Vera Files: As for the Framework of the Code of Conduct that is supposed to precede the actual Code of Conduct, can this be achieved by during the Philippine chairmanship? Is this the target achievement in so far as the South China Sea issue is concerned?
A: We’re really moving forward on this one. Even as we are talking now, we have a team that is sitting down with China, with their counterparts with the other member countries. This is something we hope to achieve as soon as possible. Yes, the framework is something that we would like to define and establish within July hopefully. But this is something that we are moving forward for within the year of our chairmanship. We have no pressure; we’re not imposing pressure on any other country for that matter, but this is something that we are moving forward toward, by this Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that we arrived at in 2002. We hope that we will achieve our timetables.
There are brewing problems, the emergence of the Rohingya problem in Myanmar. . . .I am very happy that all of the ASEAN members have agreed to treat this matter principally as an internal matter for Myanmar to resolve and should Myanmar need the assistance of the rest of the ASEAN members, particularly the kind of humanitarian assistance that they would need, all of us were really willing and able to play our share in making sure that when this kind of assistance is asked for by Myanmar would be granted and given.
Vera Files: As it appears, the Scarborough Shoal issue is being approached by the Philippines bilaterally with China. Is that the policy now, to go bilateral on Scarborough Shoal and go multilateral through ASEAN for the rest of the disputed areas? Do you suppose that the Code of Conduct should cover Scarborough Shoal if the Philippines is now going bilateral with China on this?
A: I would not think that would be proper to engage other countries not involved in the dispute, particularly in Scarborough Shoal, as a matter that will be governed by the Code of Conduct. Otherwise you will be contending with interests of other countries that are not necessarily directly involved in the issue and will tend to complicate the issue and will make it difficult to resolve. We’re talking of the Code of Conduct as it applies generally in the region, how to settle disputes, how to go about in resolving them, how to engage ourselves in joint maritime security activities in so far as the fight against illicit drugs that ply this route, terrorism and so on.
But in terms of resolving the issue, it is a peculiarity between China and the Philippines. We have agreed to put this on the back burner in the meantime until we have already (have a) solution to it. But we have made it clear that we are not compromising our respective position. By the time we are able to discuss this issue with China, it will have to be within the framework of the arbitral tribunal’s decision. Of course, China has insisted that if we would be talking, it will be outside of the framework. But this is something that we could set aside for now (and) we will engage in the areas that we can pursue toward our mutual benefit. We would expect Vietnam to be able to engage China bilaterally in so far as their dispute with China is concerned, similarly with Malaysia.
The decision of the arbitral tribunal is there. It becomes a precedent-setting decision for the other countries that would like to perhaps even file a case in so far as the resolution of their dispute is concerned. Remember the filing of the case to resolve this dispute is a matter that is encouraged, a matter that is mandated by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and by international law itself. We are mandated to make sure that we will move forward in resolving our disputes in a peaceful manner, availing of all the legal and diplomatic processes available to us. This is how we would like that Code of Conduct to govern, laying the parameters on how we can move forward in trying to resolve the issue. There are certain areas, for example Mischief Reef, (where) facilities have already been built and completed even before the Duterte Administration set in. There are reports of the building up or establishment of weapons systems. This is something that concerns us and we certainly will not hesitate to discuss this with China, and urge China to make sure that whatever actions they will be taking will not be in a manner that will add to the tensions and would be provocative, because this is what we have agreed upon. If we cannot resolve the issue now, we set aside but let’s refrain from doing such actions that would complicate and heighten the tension in the area. . . . Remember nobody wants to engage the other in a war. No one wants war. We want to make sure that we would be able to resolve our disputes peacefully.
Vera Files: How will the Philippines’ recalibrated independent foreign policy affect the ASEAN approach on the South China Sea issue, and how it engages dialogue partners like the US and China? What is the outlook for the South China Sea dispute against the backdrop of this recalibrated foreign policy?
A: (To) all the ASEAN countries and all of the other countries that we have dealings with, engaging ourselves in bilateral talks, we have been explaining this independent foreign policy that we are pursuing, the recalibration of an independent foreign policy where it is mandated by the Constitution, where (it is) also required by the Constitution to engage all nations in closer friendship. They understand that this is also the thing that they do and they also understand that when there is a conflict between their national interest and ours, they will always side (with) and pursue their own versus ours, and vice versa. They know that. They understand that. This is how international relations is carried out – one nation acts always in its paramount national interest. But we also agree when there is a convergence of mutuality of relationship, we will pursue it to the hilt for our mutual benefit.
Everybody also understands this, ASEAN, the US and the EU, Japan. In our engagements with Japan, they fully understand that they are not affected (and) they are not concerned about this independent foreign policy that we are trying to pursue. We told them and we’ve been constantly telling to the US (that) when we maintain a closer relationship with China, with Russia and any other particular country, it is because that is how, according to our Constitution, we should carry out our independent foreign policy. But it does not mean that as we strengthen our relationship with these countries, we will be weakening our relationship with other countries. And I hope that the US will understand that they cannot impose their own national interest on us. But we will understand if they will pursue their own national interest as we would hope they will understand as we would pursue ours. But the point being that we should treat each other with respect. We should treat each other as sovereign equals.
There had been about the grant of assistance benefits under the Millennium Challenge Corporation, in our mutual defense agreements and other relationships that we have. In the past, it has always been that when we try to pursue this, America wants to help us (but) they will always equate it with something else. They will always want to make sure they will help us if we do this for them and we do that and if we will not do it, they will threaten us not to give that assistance. This is not how we feel friends should be dealing with (each other), and we made this clear with everyone, including China, Russia, the US and Japan. If you’d like to be our friend, let’s treat each other with mutual respect and as sovereign equals. You want to help us, help us with no strings attached. Don’t come up with that carrot-and-stick policy. . . .That no longer holds true.
And I hope with the new leadership in America, this will bring about the kind of optimism, of new hope of making sure that when we engage ourselves bilaterally with each other, making friends, closer friends with other countries, we are not weakening our friendship with you. We are in fact making it stronger. (Reporting ASEAN – edited by Johanna Son)