PASAY CITY—The Foreign Service Institute held the Mangrove Forum on International Relations on January 24, 2017, at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza titled “The Philippines’ Chairmanship of ASEAN.” The forum, which brings together distinguished speakers from various sectors to discuss pressing issues on international affairs, highlighted the Philippines’ leadership role of the regional association this 2017.
The Keynote Address was given by Hon. Enrique A. Manalo, Undersecretary for Policy at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the current Philippine Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) Leader in ASEAN. Assistant Secretary Ma. Hellen B. de la Vega of the Office of ASEAN Affairs of DFA delivered the opening remarks and Mr. M.C. Abad Jr., Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Development Studies (ISDS) and Former Director of the ASEAN Regional Forum, served as discussant. The open forum moderator was Dr. Elizabeth L. Enriquez of the University of the Philippines Diliman’s College of Mass Communication.
In her opening remarks, Assistant Secretary de la Vega affirmed the Philippines’ aim to bring ASEAN closer to the grassroots level to make the ordinary Filipinos appreciate ASEAN’s positive contribution to their lives. She noted that this milestone year is an occasion for ASEAN to reflect on its successes and achievements during the last fifty years and to prepare itself for the new challenges ahead.
In his presentation, Undersecretary Manalo highlighted the six thematic priorities that the Philippine Chairmanship will pursue in 2017. These priorities were identified after a number of extensive consultations and interagency meetings. These are: 1) a people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN that protects the rights and promotes the welfare of their citizens; 2) peace and stability in the region by upholding peaceful co-existence and regional cooperation among Member-States; 3) maritime security and cooperation by adhering to the rule of law for the peaceful settlement of disputes and the preservation and protection of maritime resources; 4) inclusive, innovation-led growth that provides opportunities for business growth to increase the capacity to respond to the demands of the global economy; 5) ASEAN’s resiliency and preparedness to environmental disasters; and 6) and ASEAN as a model of regionalism and a global player that aims to showcase its various capacities as a global player in the international arena.
The theme of this year’s Chairmanship, “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”, according to Undersecretary Manalo, is reflective of the Philippines’ advocacy to promote cooperation with Southeast Asian neighbors as well as with other non-ASEAN dialogue and strategic partner countries given the transboundary nature of challenges. He added that, as Chair, the Philippines will “ensure that it guides ASEAN towards a path of stability, security, and growth”. He also stated that the Philippines aims to strengthen ASEAN institutions and centers across the region and to spearhead the timely issuance of statements concerning pressing regional and international concerns in UN bodies.
Discussing Undersecretary Manalo’s presentation, Mr. M.C. Abad remarked that while the theme reflects an outward-looking stance, it might also be misinterpreted as a call for strategic realignment. President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for renewed engagement with dialogue partners during the launching of ASEAN 2017 in Davao City, however, is a cause for reassurance according to Mr Abad. He added that to be an effective ASEAN Chair, the Philippines must have the capability to build consensus and must be willing to navigate uncharted waters. For him, ASEAN needs to go beyond its comfort zone in order to address new challenges. He suggested that the Philippines help accelerate the membership of East Timor into ASEAN under its Chairmanship because the longer its membership is delayed, the longer it will take the country to catch up with its Southeast Asian neighbors. He added that the international dialogue on the West Philippine Sea must continue. While the Philippines has no illusions that solutions to the overlapping claims in the South China Sea are within reach, the immediate concern is to prevent disputes from escalating into armed confrontation and the medium-term preoccupation should be to build mutual confidence through continued dialogue.
He added that the mission of ASEAN for the next fifty years is to preserve and build on the peace in the region. Despite the differences among nations and the varying social and economic developments, it is important for the countries to be predisposed to pacific settlement of disputes. At the end of his remarks, he stressed that the Philippines must remain in and contribute to ASEAN because a regional identity gives the country a wider and deeper anchor in international relations.
In the open forum, moderated by Dr. Elizabeth L. Enriquez, a question was raised on the preparations being undertaken by ASEAN regarding the rise of populism across the globe and the change of leadership in the United States and in other major countries. The discussions during the open forum highlighted the importance of strengthening institutions in ASEAN with the well-being of the people in mind. ASEAN now realizes that the programs being undertaken by governments do not meet the needs and aspirations of the people, which further contribute to the marginalization of vulnerable segments of society. ASEAN Vision 2025 reflects this realization, hence the focus on a rules-based, people-centered, and people-oriented element, in the hope that these will lead to an improvement of the well-being of the 622 million citizens of ASEAN. Furthermore, the ASEAN Charter must be made more responsive to the needs of the people. To ensure success in meeting ASEAN’s objectives, it was stressed that having a regional agenda is important in providing ASEAN Member States guidance. A regional agenda also serves as an engine to stay on course with domestic reforms and provide policy stability and consistency despite the peoples’ populist tendencies.
On educating the people on the relevance of ASEAN programs in their lives, ASEAN indirectly works with the media through civil society groups. There is an ASEAN committee – the Committee on Culture and Information (COCI), whose primary mandate is to promote ASEAN awareness. The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) is part of the COCI and it is working on information dissemination campaigns regarding ASEAN programs.
On the possibility of ASEAN asserting itself in the major power strategic battles in the region, it was emphasized that ASEAN has an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region and there is every intention to ensure this and ASEAN will be ready to play a role in the event the situation worsens.