A question of sovereignty
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2020 - 12:00am

More than a year ago, I broached the idea with our friend, Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, of holding a US-ASEAN special summit. Matt readily agreed saying it would be a good idea to have it at some point in time. 

President Trump has decided that this March would be a good time to hold the special summit especially since POTUS’ last meeting with the ASEAN leaders was in Manila, November 2017. President Trump made every effort to attend the Manila summit in spite of having to extend his Asian trip by a couple of days – the longest trip President Trump took in his first year in office. He was unable to go to the ASEAN summit in Singapore in 2018, with US Vice President Mike Pence going in his stead. He also missed the most recent one in Thailand where he sent National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as his representatives – which disappointed the ASEAN ministers. 

Certainly, a US-ASEAN summit will be propitious for the US as it can send a strong message that America continues to be a reliable partner, and that it recognizes the important geopolitical role of the regional subgroup in Asia Pacific. The inherent value of ASEAN centrality should be recognized especially now when the US and China still seem engaged in unbridled strategic competition, reflected in a recent report by a Singapore think-tank that found 73percent of experts surveyed from ASEAN member-states see the region becoming a staging ground for a major power struggle, with members becoming proxies for one side or the other.

The summit would also be a great opportunity for the US and ASEAN to engage each other on their respective visions/outlooks on the Indo-Pacific and for the US to assuage the uncertainty among the leaders of ASEAN regarding US commitment in the region. ASEAN is in a great position to deepen integration and foster unity not only among member-nations but also with dialogue partners that include China and the US. With a combined GDP of $3 trillion in 2018, it is now an economic powerhouse – in fact the fifth largest economy in the world and outperforming the global economy according to the 2019 ASEAN Integration Report. 

When I spoke with President Duterte earlier this week about his possible attendance at the US-ASEAN summit, it was clear to me he would give it serious thought. Unfortunately, the cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s US visa has precipitated the decision of the president to consider the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, and his non-attendance to the US-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas this March. 

While the decision of the president to cancel the VFA may seem drastic to many people, and that attending the US-ASEAN summit is important – the underlying issue here is not about visas but a question of sovereignty.

A retired veteran western diplomat, a personal friend from way back, told me he totally understands where President Duterte is coming from especially on the matter of sovereignty. He pointed out that if the situation were reversed – wherein Filipinos would demand that the impeachment trial of President Trump be halted pointing out that it is unfair, and that senators and congressmen who are involved in the impeachment be banned from entering the Philippines – then for sure, every American would angrily react and say: “Who are you to meddle in our internal problems and what right do you have to make unreasonable demands?” We have to remember the latest survey shows 77 percent of Filipinos support President Trump.

US senators demanding the release of Senator Leila de Lima who is facing drug charges is already deemed as unwarranted foreign interference because it unfairly assumes that the Philippines does not have a justice system in place. A large majority of Filipinos consider it an affront when some senators introduced an amendment to the US Appropriations Bill that would ban Philippine government officials involved in the De Lima case from entering the US. 

Being the chief architect of our foreign policy, President Duterte has determined from day one that we will exercise an independent foreign policy that would assert our sovereignty as a nation. Just as we are expected to respect the laws of other countries, we also expect other countries to respect ours. Such is expected even more from our longtime ally. We are an equal partner with domestic and internal issues that must be resolved on our own without undue demands from other nations or governments.

No question these recent developments will put the relationship between the US and the Philippines to a test. President Duterte has thrown the gauntlet, so to speak, and it is now up to the US government to respond since “the ball is now in their court” according to Defense Secretary Del Lorenzana.

One positive facet of our alliance is the strong regard Filipinos have for the US as seen in the results of the latest Pew Research Center survey that showed 77 percent of Filipinos trust the United States as an ally – the highest in the world. President Duterte says he holds the US president in high regard and thus has no intention to curse him – an indication of the friendship and respect between the two leaders. 

One thing is clear: I will continue to “do my job” in engaging with US government officials, legislators, and stakeholders with the end in view of maintaining the strong relationship between the Philippines and the United States. Like I always say, we need to focus on the big picture.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

MATT POTTINGER US-ASEAN SPECIAL SUMMIT
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