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Growing Philippine-Chinese Ties Raise Questions in ASEAN


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, center left, salutes the troops with Armed Forces Chief Gen. Ricardo Visaya before boarding his flight for a three-day official visit to Japan at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in suburban Pasay city, south of

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says he wants to reduce ties with the United States and strengthen relations with China.

This has raised questions about what this will mean for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Philippines is set to take over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017. The 10-nation group marks its 50th anniversary next year. Both the United States and China are partners with ASEAN.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, ushers Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen following the opening ceremony for the ongoing 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and other related summits Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 in Vientiane, Laos. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, ushers Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen following the opening ceremony for the ongoing 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and other related summits Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016 in Vientiane, Laos. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The last ASEAN meeting in July centered on security issues including the dispute over the South China Sea. Some members are concerned about China’s rising influence. Some have also raised questions about what America’s future role in ASEAN should be.

Duterte has said repeatedly that the Philippine-U.S. relationship is not as important now as in the past. He has also sharply criticized U.S. officials for speaking out against his bloody anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.

In Japan, Wednesday, he also said he wanted all foreign troops out of the Philippines within “maybe two years.” The U.S and the Philippines agreed in 2014 to let the American military use five bases in the country. Duterte took office in June.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a joint press conference at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Eugene Hoshiko/Pool
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a joint press conference at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Eugene Hoshiko/Pool

During a recent visit to Beijing, Duterte announced a “separation” with the United States in favor of China. However, he then took back the strong language after returning home to the Philippines. He said what he really meant was “separation of a foreign policy.”

Carl Thayer is a defense analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia. He says Duterte should avoid making such statements without first discussing the policies with other ASEAN members.

Thayer said one good thing to come out of Duterte’s visit to China was a possible easing of tensions over conflicts in the South China Sea.

“The South China Sea is no longer the issue that it was. And the way Duterte is handling it, it has taken the sting out of that issue and provided China with incentives to pick up his diplomatic initiative.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shows the way to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shows the way to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The Philippines and China have competing claims over large areas of the South China Sea. In July, an international court ruled in favor of Manila in the dispute, but China rejected the decision. Taiwan and three ASEAN members - Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – also have claims in the sea.

Dennis Quilala is a professor at the University of the Philippines. He agrees that Duterte’s new China policy seems to have helped ease tensions in ASEAN. But he still has concerns about the possible effects in the future.

“I hope that the policies really will be able to successfully work with both superpowers, and be able to think about our interests. I hope that this will end that way, because I really don’t think that our interests are really just going all the way to China.”

In this Sept. 7, 2016, photo, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte link arms during the ASEAN Plus Three summit in Vientiane, Laos.
In this Sept. 7, 2016, photo, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte link arms during the ASEAN Plus Three summit in Vientiane, Laos.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Bangkok-based Institute of Security and International Studies. He says if Duterte’s foreign policies keep changing, it could affect the balance of power in ASEAN. He noted the already strained relations between Washington and Manila, as well as the U.S. and Thailand.

“So two allies of America in South East Asia are relatively estranged now. This is going to be a dramatic tipping point for China-U.S. relations in the region.”

Thitinan added that recent events show China’s influence keeps growing in the ASEAN nations of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. He said this means the United States will have to rethink its own plan to react to this new balance of power.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Ron Corben reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted it for VOA Learning English. was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What do you think about a possible shift in the balance of power in ASEAN? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

rolen. ​part played by a person or thing in a particular situation

sting – n. a hurtful effect of something

incentive – n. something that encourages someone to act in a certain way

initiative – n. a plan or activity done to solve a problem

estrangedadj. separated from, not in contact

dramatic – adj. something sudden, striking or exciting

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