China Scores Tacit Victory at Southeast Asian Leaders' Meeting

  • Asean leaders finish first of two summits planned for 2019
  • Trump invited Duterte to White House in post-summit phone call

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, from left to right, Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith join hands as they pose for a 'family photo' at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders' summit in Manila on April 29, 2017.

Photographer: Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

China won approval from Southeast Asian leaders on Saturday at a meeting where U.S. allies in Asia have previously criticized Beijing over its actions in disputed maritime territory.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has enjoyed an upswing in relations with China for some time, ended a summit in Manila with a statement noting “the improving cooperation between Asean and China” in the South China Sea.

Rodrigo Duterte in Manila on April 29.

Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

The leaders also welcomed “progress to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” by the middle of this year, and recognized “the long-term benefits” of peace, stability and sustainable development in the region.

The leaders’ avoided mention of sensitive issues such as land reclamation or militarization, or last year’s ruling by an international court that rejected China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea in a case brought by the Philippines under the administration of former president Benigno Aquino.

For an explainer on China’s maritime push, click here

China’s efforts to assert its dominance over the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes that carries more than $5 trillion in annual trade, have in the past angered Southeast Asian nations with competing claims such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The waterway has become a flash-point in a broader tussle for regional influence between China and the U.S. in Asia.

Speaking after the meeting, Philippines President and current Asean chairman Rodrigo Duterte said China’s recent actions in the South China Sea were not discussed at the leaders’ meeting on Saturday, describing any talks on the issue as “useless.”

“The biggest victor in diplomacy in this summit is China,” Lauro Baja, former Philippine foreign affairs undersecretary, said on Saturday. “Asean seems to feel and act under the shadows of China.”

“China is engaging Asean in a very successful diplomatic position,” Baja said. “Asean considers what China feels, what China thinks and how China will act in its decisions.”

Before the summit, Duterte told reporters that arguments between the Philippines and China over disputed maritime territory were not an issue for Asean. A Philippine delegation is due to travel to China in May to discuss issues related to the South China Sea.

“Closer relations with China has lent itself to a more cohesive Asean and promises to prevent war and escalated conflict in our part of the world,” Wilfrido Villacorta, a former Philippine Ambassador to Asean and also a former Deputy Secretary-General of Asean, said in an email Saturday.

“President Duterte’s inclusive foreign policy has significantly transformed the security architecture and balance of power in Southeast Asia.”

Trump Call

After wrapping up the Asean summit, Duterte spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump to pass on Asean concerns on regional security, including the threat posed by North Korea, according to a readout of the call provided by the White House.

“President Trump enjoyed the conversation and said that he is looking forward to visiting the Philippines in November to participate in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit,” according to the White House statement.

Trump also acknowledged that “the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs” and invited Duterte to visit the White House to discuss the importance of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, which is “now heading in a very positive direction.”

Since being sworn into office last June, Duterte has launched a brutal crackdown on drug pushers that has claimed thousands of lives and attracted condemnation from the around the world.

Trade, Integration

At the summit, Asean leaders also instructed ministers to redouble efforts toward bringing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Asean dialog partners, including Japan, China, India and Australia, into force as soon as possible.

With a combined gross domestic product of $2.55 trillion in 2016 and robust year-on-year real GDP growth rate of 4.7 percent that is expected to accelerate to 4.8 percent this year, Asean leaders also committed to continue efforts to further integrate the region’s economies.

Asean leaders also welcomed progress on a roll-on, roll-off shipping network between Davao in the Philippines and Indonesia, and stressed the need for cooperation against piracy and other crimes at sea.

Judgement Call

On Asean’s decision not to raise last year’s international court ruling on the South China Sea, former undersecretary Baja said it was “a judgement call” by Duterte.

“Most of us were expecting that, as chair of the Asean, we could have been more expressive and assertive in pushing for Philippine advocacies. The arbitral ruling is one of them,” Baja said.

Albert del Rosario, who was Philippines Foreign Secretary under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino from 2011 to 2016, also criticized the decision.

“Our government, in its desire to quickly accommodate our aggressive northern neighbor, may have left itself negotiating a perilous road with little or no room to rely on brake power and a chance to shift gears if necessary,” Rosario said in a text message Saturday.

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