Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano: ‘President Duterte’s South China Sea strategy is working’

As senior officials from ASEAN member states and the bloc’s dialogue partners gathered in Manila for a series of high-level meetings over the weekend, Philippines Foreign Secretary Mr Alan Peter Cayetano sat down with journalists and editors from across the region for the inaugural ASEAN Media Forum. In a 45-minute conversation, Cayetano, who was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte in May, gave his perspective on a range of issues, including terrorism, combating illicit drugs and making progress on the South China Sea.

The problems in Rakhine State and in Marawi in the Philippines have both been the focus of much attention recently. Has your government spoken to Myanmar about these issues and might there be a similar solution?

I had the privilege of travelling with the president [to Myanmar] as the senate chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Our leaders have had the chance to talk and discuss many issues. One of them is how to make human rights the centre of our development program yet avoiding human rights being politicised. The other thing is really how to support a government in solving problems based on their perspectives and their needs.

We’re not saying that there’s no time in the world or no circumstances where interventions by the international community is needed. What we’re saying is that more and more there are those who want to get involved in domestic issues but the way they want to get involved is in a politicised manner. That doesn’t really solve the problem but actually aggravates the problem.

Reports on the draft ASEAN statement concerning the South China Sea indicate that the wording is weak and doesn’t mention China’s activities in the South China Sea. Do you expect stronger wording after ending the meeting here and how will you prevent a recurrence of the incident that occurred in Phnom Penh in 2012, when ASEAN could not issue a joint communiqué because of a dispute among the members?

Of course we want to have a joint communiqué. ASEAN has been criticised in the past and has been prophesised to amount to nothing … they were saying, how can a consensus-based organisation in this world, in this environment, grow and be effective? As you know, compared to a majority-rule organisation, it’s very, very difficult to get a consensus.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

The wording [of the communiqué] has to reflect what is happening on the ground. This last year, with the leadership of [Philippines] President [Rodrigo] Duterte … we have made much ground [bilaterally with China]. I was in the National Security Council that decided to file the arbitration case [under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] so I have a little bit of a perspective on both strategies; on the go hard against China and confront them in all multilaterals, and now the engage them bilaterally but find the common ground and pursue objectives.

In both strategies, what were the objectives? The objective was to stop China, stop the Philippines and stop other claimants from building on more features. Before it was an arms race … whoever had more resources, and more military resources, was at an advantage. What effect did that have on the region? Instability. It created the atmosphere of distrust, instability that affected so many things in our daily lives.

In both strategies, the goals were the same. What was different was how to get to that goal. The first goal was to stop everyone from claiming more features and then building. Secondly, to start talking, start the cooperation, the building of trust.

What happened in the last year? In the last year, President Duterte said, “Here is the arbitration award. I will keep it, there will be a time when I will take it out, but it will be between China and the Philippines. And in the meantime we will talk bilaterally.”

We believe that President Duterte’s strategy – without judging the past strategy – is now working. It’s not only working bilaterally for China and the Philippines … it’s working for the whole region. Because instability in the whole region will drive foreign investment elsewhere, will drive tourism elsewhere, will drive trade elsewhere.

Are we near a solution? No, we’re very far. But where we failed in the past, we’re now inching our way there.

We’re not only talking about the region. There are superpowers, powers outside the region, who have an interest in the region. Some of that interest we share as ASEAN, some we share as Filipinos, and some we do not.

We have to factor also how China is reacting to all of this. It would be a different matter if despite all the goodwill of the ASEAN nations and of the Philippines, there would be one or two which would take unilateral action and will worsen the situation there.

I’m not pro-China; I’m pro-ASEAN and pro-Philippines. But to understand China, you also have to understand that if you were China, would you … allow a chain of bases [from a country that] you could consider your rival to be there? Unless we look at the bigger picture we will continue to have strong statements but we won’t find solutions.

These are the things that fall into [President Duterte’s] independent foreign policy. Now, to balance our independent foreign policy with ASEAN centrality and ASEAN consensus-based organisation is difficult, but we are committed to it.

Some of these ideas you might find in the joint communiqué or in some statements, some you may not … but eventually we will come to a consensus and I hope that the consensus would benefit our whole region.

A draft of the framework of the Code of Conduct was finalised in May. How is it different from the Declaration of Conduct from 2002 and what will make it meaningful in terms of regulating the sea?

What happened in the last 20 years? Was the DOC actually complied with? In domestic law I look at the DOC as the constitution, and the COC like a statute or a law implementing the constitution. So I expect the COC to be more specific, more substantial, and of course there’s a debate whether legally binding or binding, but in international relations they’re very close to each other. Hopefully it will be legally binding but at the very least binding.

The framework [of the COC] has basically been agreed upon and we’re hoping that there will be less debate on the substantive part of the COC and we’ll actually be able to pass it. If we get to pass it, it will benefit the whole ASEAN and it will benefit everyone.

Illicit drugs are obviously a big domestic issue for your country, but also for many of the countries in the region as well. As ASEAN chair, how do you plan to tackle this issue through the ASEAN framework?

First, some basic points. Drugs affect families, communities and countries. And one of the disagreements with the Westerners is brought about when we use the term drugs loosely. The kind of drugs they’re used to are not the same kind of drugs that Asians are used to. You don’t hear people taking marijuana or cocaine raping a two-year-old or a four-year-old or a five-year-old … because paranoia and violence is not associated with those drugs.

How do we discuss it in this framework? Well another fact is that illegal drugs is related to organised crime which is related many times to terrorism or insurgencies in different countries. So the areas that are fertile for radicalisation of young people are areas that are poor, areas where there is insurgency, areas where there is a lot of drugs, and worse where the three of them are found together.

We want to discuss [illicit drugs] and we want a common stand on drugs in the context of protecting our communities, our children. So what’s to stop ASEAN states from being very tough on drugs? I think the bigger question there is the human rights aspect but what the ASEAN leaders have been taken to task in discussing with our Western counterparts is that human rights does not only belong to certain individuals – it does not only belong to criminals or those discriminated against. It belongs to families, to communities, to nations. In the Philippines we have 16 or 17 million families. One-fifth has a member who is into drugs.

No one has the perfect answer but what we do know in the Philippines is we cannot give in and we cannot just say, “Let’s legalise it to make a better situation.” So we’re hoping that will be one of the outputs of ASEAN this year, especially in the leaders, that there will be strong statements and strong action on the side of terrorism, violent extremism, and also on the side of illegal narcotics and drugs.

What else are you hoping will result from the meetings taking place in Manila this week?

You will have to excuse me because I’m a 25-year politician and only a three-month diplomat. But if I’m correct, there’s politics in everything, even in diplomacy – especially diplomacy. I still believe that all politics is local. So I still believe that ASEAN wants to achieve prosperity progress and peace for its people. I do believe that we take time out to meet as brothers and sisters and as neighbours precisely so that we can meet the needs of our people. We have shared history, shared pains, shared horrors of war and colonialism around the region, but we also have our young people and diversity and the market.

Let me close with this example. I was talking to a Western group, they were talking about certain human rights criteria that we have to meet in order to get an advantage in trade. I said, “You know, sir, you invented that system to deal with drugs. And now we’re dealing with drugs and you will put human rights in our face. But it’s really up to you, because we need you more now, but 20 years from now, as ASEAN grows and Asia grows, you will need us more than we need you.”

And then we talked about values – you have values, we have values. It’s normal and it’s human for you to share your values and try for us to share your values and vice versa, but don’t rub it into our faces. So you don’t like the death penalty? We respect that. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says no to death if it’s arbitrary, but if it’s ordered by the court then it still [complies with] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Many ASEAN countries do not have abortion. But we do not go to Europe and tell them that [they] are baby killers, because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that people have a right from birth, but many of us from different religions believe that life starts at conception … we should not politicise it and not rub it in each other’s face. There’s a continuing dialogue there but also a continued friction.

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar