Manila sows Asean unease
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Manila sows Asean unease

President Rodrigo Duterte is doing no favours to the Philippines with his ever-changing policies on US relations and military exercises. More to the point, he is damaging long and careful relations within Asean, as well as with all of the group's neighbours. For several weeks he has threatened to end bilateral and multilateral war games with Washington. The ongoing threats mean policy problems for every friend and neighbour of the Philippines.

It must be noted that Mr Duterte was expected to be in Thailand last weekend to attend the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) summit, but he sent a cabinet minister in his place.

In addition, the Philippines leader is due to make a traditional "getting to know you" visit to each Asean member nation, with Thailand still on his list. Face to face with Thai leaders, he might have better explained his policies than the press reports everyone currently must depend upon.

By those reports, Mr Duterte has threatened to call off Philippines participation in all military exercises scheduled for the country. In addition, he has made threats that he intends to block plans for joint US-Philippines navy patrols through the South China Sea.

While not vital, such patrols would reinforce the sanctity of freedom of the seas. Without US-Philippines patrols, other countries will have to perform the patrols which keep international shipping lanes open.

Mr Duterte's too-constant harangues over US relations are troubling, since they seem based entirely on personal animosity.

That boils down to a statement by US President Barack Obama in late August that he hoped to discuss Mr Duterte's bloody and murderous "war on drugs" programme.

More than 3,000 have died and the pogrom against alleged petty drug dealers continues. Mr Duterte was either outraged or feigned outrage that Mr Obama would question his regime's murders, and turned the tiff into a foreign policy issue with worldwide implications.

China, never a nation to let an opportunity slide, immediately backed the extra-judicial killings of drug dealers and suspects. That is a terribly unfortunate move by Beijing.

It is one thing to state China will not interfere in the affairs of a neighbour. It is quite another to fully support and encourage the killings taking place by the hour in the Philippines.

Of course it gave Mr Duterte further ammunition to attack Washington. After all, he said, he could easily kick out the Americans and replace them with Chinese. If that sounds facile, it is because it is.

It is unclear why Mr Duterte made such a hardline decision regarding military exercises with Washington that also affects Asean. But more countries in the region now agree firmly that war games of the type now employed between Japan and India are a positive influence.

The US and the Philippines, with special history and relations, have many bilateral war games, but those two nations take part in many multilateral exercises, among them Cobra Gold.

The annual US-Thai exercises include numerous other countries, including China and the Philippines. Cobra Gold 2017 is tentatively scheduled to begin on Feb 9.

There is no doubt the Philippines has the right to set a foreign policy in its own interests. But Mr Duterte and his new administration are doing the opposite. They are setting no policy at all -- neither a continuation of never-wavering reliability, nor a smooth shift to new policy.

The result has been months of uncertainty for friends and allies. As a founding member and one of the rock-solid allies of all Asean members, the Philippines owes its nine fellow members better treatment.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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