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Analyst: Duterte adds to weakening of international law

Duterte gestures as he speaks before journalists at a press conference on the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, April 29, 2017. Efigenio Toledo IV/philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines — A top security analyst warned that dropping a reference to the South China Sea ruling on the draft Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chairman's statement of President Rodrigo Duterte contributes to the weakening of international law.

An excerpt of the updated version of the draft acquired by media did not directly mention China or the award in the case brought by the Aquino administration against Beijing in 2013. The United Nations-backed ruling issued last year voided China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.

Key wording mentioning "respect for legal and diplomatic processes" was removed. The phrase is code for the arbitral tribunal proceedings and the award, Southeast Asia security expert Carlyle Alan Thayer, director of Thayer Consultancy, said. Instead, the phrase was replaced with: "respect for the full supremacy of the law."

Thayer said that Duterte as Philippine president is legally responsible for complying with the award along with China. 

"Duterte thus contributes to weakening international law by avoiding this issue," he said.

Filipino diplomats fought hard for the inclusion of the phrase as a compromise to the absence of a direct mention of the ruling.

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Delegates and diplomats said that China, through its ambassador to Manila, called for the removal of the wording. They added that Beijing this week had been heavily lobbying Duterte to weaken the statement further and drop any reference to international law.

"The lobbying is quite intense. They (China) want it further watered down," one diplomat told Agence France-Presse. 

The chairman's statement is important as it reflects the views of all ASEAN leaders. Thayer said that Duterte could exert some influence as ASEAN chairman on how issues are brought up and presented to the outside world.

Balancing act

Duterte has been pursuing a so-called independent foreign policy—cozying up to China while veering away from its traditional ally, the United States. Although criticized for this, Thayer said this less confrontational approach towards China is a strong point for the Philippine president as this is in line with the current ASEAN consensus.

"Duterte inclinations are in line with ASEAN's stress on inclusive habits of dialogue and consensus both among its members and in relations with ASEAN's dialogue partners," the Australian analyst said.

But such approach has its downsides, too.

"Pressing sensitive security issues are swept under the carpet because of the need to forge consensus. Malaysia tried to pioneer an approach that gave recognition to the concerns of 'some members' of China's actions in the South China Sea on the one hand, and views by other members on the other. Duterte could have followed suit," he said.

"Duterte's accommodating approach towards China is the easy way out; Duterte who has a strong personality, is not acting like a proactive statesman in presenting to China in diplomatic language the genuine concerns held by some members about Chinese militarization of the South China Sea."

Duterte who has shocked the international community with his strong language is being closely watched for how he would handle hosting the ASEAN Summit—his first major diplomatic event.

Thayer said that the Philippine president might be put in the position of "not rocking the boat" with the White House announcing President Donald Trump's attendance in the next ASEAN meet in November.

Duterte has lashed at the United States countless times over criticisms on his bloody drug war. But he was also vocal about his similarities and admiration of Trump.

"Duterte will now be put in the position of not rocking the boat by antagonizing Trump with off the cuff remarks." — with a report from Agence France-Presse

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