Duterte to open door for European and North Asian states to join ASEAN

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has openly supported the idea of Mongolia and Turkey – neither of which are Southeast Asian countries – joining ASEAN. The idea is a non-starter but it has led to some calls for ASEAN’s policy of rotating its chairmanship to be reconsidered.

By John Pennington

His critics – and there are many – would argue most things President Rodrigo Duterte says are crazy. However, calling for Mongolia and Turkey to join ASEAN might just be among the most bizarre ideas the embattled leader of the Philippines has come up with yet.

Duterte, who holds the ASEAN chairmanship for 2017, said, “They want to join ASEAN and since I am now the chair, the Philippines is, they wanted me to sponsor their entry and I said, ‘Yes, why not.’”

Mongolia and Turkey will not join ASEAN. Neither country is in Southeast Asia. Geography is the first criterion that prospective new members must meet. Turkey straddles Asia and Europe. Mongolia is landlocked between China and Russia.

Challenged by Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi as to whether he had considered the geography, Duterte claimed the countries are part of the region. “They are. I would say that they are,” he said. “Turkey seems to be ambivalent on whether to be a bridge of Europe and Asia or being an Asian … Sometimes they say they are part of Asia. Sometimes they say they are a bridge of Asia to Europe.”

Even Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea, who would both meet the geographical qualification, only have observer status, with the former still unable to gain unanimous approval – the second criterion – from the current 10 members. So what exactly was Duterte thinking?

Mongolia and Turkey have shown little interest in joining ASEAN

What makes the comments even odder is that it is not clear that Mongolia and Turkey are currently interested in joining ASEAN. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in 2015 he “would like” Turkey to join ASEAN, the proposal never gained traction. Lee Yoong Yoong, ASEAN Secretariat community affairs director confirmed neither country has applied. “This issue has never come up for discussion in ASEAN,” he said.

Instead, Mongolia’s Prime Minister Jargatulga Erdeneba and Erdogan may have discussed with Duterte the idea of establishing closer links or even a “formal partnership” with Southeast Asian countries. This either led to a misunderstanding or Duterte decided to embellish the facts and sensationalise the discussions.

Article 44 of the ASEAN Charter permits external parties to work with ASEAN. For example, the US, China, and Japan are among ASEAN’s 10 dialogue partners and ASEAN +3 defines the group’s relationship with China, Japan, and South Korea. Mongolia and Turkey could in the future hold any number of formal statuses, but they would have to join a growing queue before getting there.

There is often a big difference between what Duterte says and what he does

Duterte says many things in public. He is often provocative, sometimes offensive, and even downright ridiculous. Sometimes, he follows his words with concrete actions. Like when he said he “didn’t care about” human rights and backed that up by continuing his war on drugs despite calls to stop.

Typically, however, he cannot and he does not follow up on his words. He threatened to “burn down” UN headquarters. He talked of “separation” from the US. He joked about riding a jet ski in the South China Sea while carrying the Philippine flag. One must, therefore, be wary of the difference between what Duterte says and what he then does.

Taking his comment about Mongolia and Turkey at face value and his follow-ups when challenged does suggest a misunderstanding of the complex political and geographical challenges that ASEAN faces. It also suggests an oversight of the lengthy and difficult processes involved; even establishing partnerships would require time and serious diplomatic efforts.

Few world leaders speak as directly, as flippantly, and as openly as Duterte. Taking him at his word, in this case, is a waste of time. Mongolia and Turkey joining ASEAN will not happen, just as Duterte will not attack the UN. Don’t believe everything you hear or read during Duterte’s time as chair. As Ernesto Pernia, his socioeconomic planning secretary put it following Duterte’s latest denouncement of the EU, “The president has a style of doing something and taking it back.”

Heavy responsibility and the ASEAN chairmanship go hand in hand

As ASEAN Chair, Duterte has several responsibilities. He becomes the figurehead for ASEAN, representing Southeast Asia at summits and meetings. He must act as spokesman, chair meetings, tabling new initiatives and programmes while attempting to reach consensus on issues.

Given how he swept to power in his own country on a law and order ticket, immediately launched a brutal war on drugs and now faces claims that he is a mass murderer, it is understandable that his position as ASEAN chair makes some people feel uncomfortable.

Furthermore, his lack of foreign policy experience and his track record of combative and threatening behaviour make him one of the most eccentric and volatile chairs ASEAN has ever had. Southeast Asia will heave a collective sigh of relief when Singapore assumes the chairmanship next year.

Duterte is not being given an easy ride as chairman

If Duterte genuinely thinks that Mongolia and Turkey could join ASEAN and that he could somehow force it through, then he is completely wrong. He may be able to use strong-arm tactics to make things happen in the Philippines but he is powerless when it comes to ASEAN expansion.

Stating his support for their application does show a willingness to work with countries from outside the bloc. However, he must know unanimous approval would be required even if the geographical problem could be overlooked. He must know that Timor-Leste has been pushing for inclusion since 2002 yet remains unable to join. If he was ignorant at the time, he will undoubtedly have been advised accordingly since.

What else could be motivating Duterte? One hypothesis is that by speaking out and pushing this story front and centre, he is trying to deflect attention from the problems he faces at home or the criticism he took for not speaking out about the South China Sea issue.

Rethinking Article 31 would be an overreaction

Rotating chairmanship – as per Article 31 of the ASEAN Charter – is a system that has been in place since 1976. Naturally, some chairs have been more effective than others and some have had more serious affairs to deal with than others.

The same system is in operation for other multinational organisations including G20 and the European Union Council, and to date, it has worked for ASEAN. It would be an overreaction to change the system because one leader appears to betray a lack of understanding about the finer workings of the organisation in public.

ASEAN itself was built on a foundation of equality and partnership. By modifying or removing Article 31 and denying each member its turn at leading and representing the bloc, the very fabric that keeps ASEAN together could start to fall apart.