By Camille Elemia
The Philippines must lead in peace-keeping efforts amid rising tensions in Southeast Asia and beyond, new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said as he pledged this week to propose “concrete” steps at an ASEAN summit in November for addressing conflicts.
Marcos said the time has come to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – of which the Philippines is a founding member – and make it a significant force in an Indo-Pacific region roiled by international tensions. As examples, he cited tensions over North Korean missile tests, the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, and the “push and pull” between rival superpowers the United States and China over Taiwan.
“So we have a very important part to play in that because we have a great interest. It must be a subject of central concern in our foreign policy and in the defense of the nation in the Philippines,” Marcos said.
He made the remarks while fielding questions after a speech at the Manila Overseas Press Club on Wednesday night. A transcript from the event was made available Thursday.
“So I do not think we have a choice. We must play a leadership role because it is in our interest. And if we do not do it, we are not doing our jobs as the protectors of our country, of our state, of our territory, of our people, if we do not take that leadership role,” said Marcos, the namesake son of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos who led the Philippines from 1965 until 1986, when he was ousted in a people-power revolt.
Since taking office on June 30, the younger Marcos has vowed to pursue an independent foreign policy “where the country is a friend to all, enemy to none.”
“I think ASEAN can do more than it has done thus far,” Marcos said of the 10-member regional bloc.
“I think we should continue … to move that united front forward so that we can say that ASEAN as a political, geopolitical aggrupation, economic aggrupation, has certainly shown that it has a function to do in the normal scheme of the geopolitics. But when crisis comes, that they come to the fore,” Marcos said.
This was a similar refrain during his state visit to Indonesia in September, where the Philippine president and Indonesian counterpart Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called on ASEAN to lead the way in bringing peace in the region.
In his remarks, however, Marcos did not mention territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which is known here as the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines and several of its neighbors in ASEAN as well as Taiwan and China have contending claims in the strategic waterway.
Marcos said he would propose “concrete” steps in the upcoming ASEAN summit in November on how to bring Myanmar’s military government to the table and discuss the Rohingya crisis.
“I intend to propose several actions that ASEAN can take specific to the different conflicts that we are seeing in our region,” he said. “And if the Philippines can play a part, then that would certainly be a good thing.”
ASEAN has been widely criticized for its failure to compel the Burmese military to live up to a five-point consensus for bringing peace to post-coup Myanmar that the junta chief agreed to during an emergency summit of Southeast Asian leaders in April 2021. Since then, the Burmese military has largely carried on unchecked in bloodily crushing the political opposition while fighting various insurgencies.
The 55-year-old regional bloc, which operates by consensus, has been seen as failing repeatedly to issue a strong stance against perceived Chinese aggression in the disputed South China Sea, the Mekong River dams, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.