For those who thought Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign-policy shift – from the United States to China – was a venture into unchartered waters, the chances are that they’ll be even more perplexed by his agreeing to sponsor bids from Turkey and Mongolia to become members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Of course, his critics are jumping all over what amounted to a throwaway remark which he made at the conclusion of the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing on Monday. Doesn’t he realise, they ask, that these countries are nowhere near Southeast Asia? Hasn’t he read the Asean Charter, they bleat, which clearly stipulates members must be physically anchored in that region?
Duterte is well aware of those facts, but let’s first put these remarks into context. What his statement actually said was that at the Summit he had held sideline talks with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Mongolian Prime Minister, Jargaltulga Erdenebat – both of whom had expressed an interest in joining the Asean grouping. Each, he said, had sought his support to do so. In other words, this wasn’t an idea which Duterte had concocted; this was his response to their innovative proposals.
He went on to say that they had approached him in his capacity as chair of this year’s Asean Summit which will round off with a heads-of-state gathering in Manila in November at which Erdogan and Erdenebat will likely be present. His response to the leaders, he told the press in Beijing, had been a simple “Yes, why not?”
Bear in mind first, this was a hurried press conference; it wasn’t a foreign-policy briefing called for that express purpose. Thus, time was short and certainly insufficient to explain any details of how such an arrangement might work. Indeed, as everyone should know, ideas are floated all the time at large gatherings like the one in Beijing. Leaders and their staffs use these events to sound out other leaders on a range of issues – some of them eventually fly; many of them (probably the majority) don’t.
The issue then is one of form and substance. From a diplomatic standpoint, when confronted with such a proposal, no world leader is going to answer negatively; dismiss it off the cuff and risk creating offence. That goes for the president of the US, the prime minister of Britain, the president of China and the prime minister of Japan. Thus as far as form is concerned there’s nothing Duterte can be criticised for.
But where other leaders might say in response something like “We should look at that” or “That’s an interesting idea, maybe we can get back to you when we’ve had time to consider it more fully,” Duterte seemed to accede to their request. Thus, as far as the substance of his reply is concerned, on the face of it, he might be eligible for criticism – apart from as the chair of this year’s Asean Summit, he can make any proposal he wishes if he believes it would be beneficial to the group.
Of course, as was readily pointed out, Turkey and Mongolia – though unquestionably great fans of the grouping – cannot become the 11th and 12th states of Asean any more than Mozambique and Latvia can; and for the same reason, they don’t reside in Southeast Asia. But they could join with Asean – reshaping the Asean +3 (the original grouping plus China, Japan and South Korea), to form the Asean +5, for example. Or expand the Asean +6, which added Australia, India and New Zealand to Asean +3, to become Asean +8.
They could also make a case for joining the East Asia Summit – the 16-member South, Southeast and East Asia bloc which also takes in Australia, Russia, New Zealand and the US, none of which are in any part of South, Southeast or East Asia. The point is, there’s a lot more fluidity here than at first appears when it’s looked from a narrow geographical reference.
Furthermore, this wasn’t a new idea. In July 2015 while on a state visit to Asean-member, Indonesia, Erdogan was emphatic about wanting Turkey to be part of the bloc: “The Asia Pacific region is increasingly important in the world economy, and we want to boost cooperation. We also would like to be a member of the Asean,” he said at the time. That same year Malaysia, as the Asean chair, invited the Turkish foreign minister to attend the 48th Asean Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
But Turkey’s ambitions predate all that. In 2010 it became a party to the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (ATAC). It described that move as its “first step to develop our institutional relations with the Asean, which occupies a pivotal position in Southeastern Asia”. Meanwhile, Turkey has been building its presence in the region; it has embassies in nine Asean states and is set to open one in Laos.
Turning to Mongolia, it too has been lobbying to join Asean in some form for quite some time. It’s been a member of the Asean Regional Forum since 1999 and a signatory to the ATAC since 2005. In 2013 it created the post of Chief of the Permanent Representative Mission to Asean, an ambassadorial-level position. Mongolia presently keeps embassies in five Asean states.
In 2015, Mongolia’s foreign minister, Lundeg Puresuven, told the secretary-general of Asean, Le Luong Minh, “Mongolia would like to engage and work with Asean to pursue peace, stability and development of the region” – words that echoed the 1967 Asean Declaration. In turn, Minh encouraged Mongolia to broaden its cooperation with Asean.
But if there’s consternation that Mongolia wants to join Asean, given its geography, what would those critics make of its ambitions to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, supposedly a club for Pacific Rim countries. The Pacific Ocean doesn’t beat on Mongolia’s shores, it has none – it’s landlocked.
The fact of life is that groupings like Asean are about far more than geography. It’ll inevitably come as a surprise to some ‘observers’ but it’s not that literal. Any more than Duterte’s response to the two leaders should be taken literally. Asean, far from being an isolationist organisation is outward looking; and if its goals and principals can be enhanced by expanding its reach then it certainly won’t summarily dismiss such opportunities.
Both Turkey and Mongolia are already working with a number of Asean institutions on a series of levels – they’re both bilaterally related to Asean through trade and cultural exchanges and in other areas. What they’re seeking then is closer formal ties with Asean – as dialogue partners; associate membership of the Association.
And here’s the other point; Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are not the only Asean states that have welcomed these two countries participation in the group. Thailand, which is in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with Turkey would also give the proposal a sympathetic hearing. As would Singapore which already has an FTA with Turkey.
So, while on the face of it, the requests from Turkey and Mongolia might seem a little bizarre, when you scratch the surface what you actually find is that these they’ve been positioning themselves for some time to be a part of Asean – and, in fact, in some respects already are. What they’re looking to do then, is to take things to the next level.
All this is a job for Asean members to deliberate on. They’ll decide to what extent Ankara’s and Ulan Bator’s ambitions are realistic and beneficial. These two countries already have some backing within the group, the question is can they get all the members on board which they will need to do? That’s not certain – what is though is that they will both be lobbying hard to win support for their bids from across the region.