Reporting the ASEAN Joint Communique: The Radical Shift in PH Foreign Policy
Better late than never.
This seems to have been the case with the joint communiqué of the 50th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting held in Manila. The statement was expected to be released on Saturday, August 5, but was not issued until Sunday evening. The meeting ended two days later, on August 8.
The communiqué reflected the sense of “eroded trust and confidence” among ASEAN member nations.
Media reported the lack of agreement in the preparation of the communiqué. Among contentious issues were the Chinese expansionism in disputed waters in the region and the ballistic missile tests by North Korea. But media described the extended deliberations as having resulted in the stronger position taken by the ASEAN on these two issues.
Print media also noted the dramatic change in the position of the Philippine government vis-a-vis China.
CMFR monitored reports on the communiqué and assessed coverage by the leading broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin) as well as primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, and CNN Philippines’ News Night).
Because ASEAN insists on consensus, the absence of a communiqué could only mean the failure to reach agreement. Media referred to the experience in 2012, when Cambodia opposed the effort of the Philippines to seek a united stand against China’s activities in contested waters.
The issuance of the joint communiqué called for media’s close attention. In 2016, the Philippines gained the favorable ruling of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal which upheld the country’s sovereign rights to its exclusive economic zone and invalidated Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
What the statement didn’t say
Most of the reports published by the leading broadsheets were from international news agencies such as Agence France Presse (AFP), the Associated Press, the New York Times, and Reuters. These reports noted the joint communique’s silence on the matter of the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling. Reports aired by primetime newscasts 24 Oras, Aksyon and News Night made the same observation.
TV5’s Aksyon detailed the admission of Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano’s admission that he did not want to include in the communiqué issues that would not sit well with China, such as non-militarization and land reclamation. He said in an August 8 press conference, “I’m not saying I agree with what China is doing, but the Philippines, in building mutual trust and respect with China, is asking China to understand us, so how can we do that without also understanding them?” He explained that the arbitral ruling on the disputed territory was not included “because we won’t make any progress. China already said if you talk about the arbitration award, there’s no talks. So would you rather that we be tough and shove it in their face and nothing happens in the South China Sea or would you rather we talk diplomatically and we get all the results?”
Philippines jumping ship?
The print media published reports describing how the withdrawal of the Philippines had ceased from challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office last year. But more substantive discussions were found in opinion columns and editorials.
The Inquirer’s August 8 editorial “Turnaround in Asean,” observed: “The Philippines, which is this year’s Asean chair and which had won an important legal victory over China with the arbitral ruling, itself chose to avoid reference to China’s island reclamation or to the ruling itself in the Asean Chairman’s Statement released last April, on the back of President Duterte’s conciliatory policy toward Beijing.”
In his Philippine Daily Inquirer column on August 9, “China’s pleasant Asean picture,” Manuel Quezon III recalled how the Philippines and Vietnam together had previously stood their ground against China’s activities in the disputed area. But the two countries do not seem to be in the same boat anymore.
Quezon also cited the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi weeks before the Asean Ministerial Meeting: “To visit Manila, a mere few weeks before he was due to visit again for the Asean foreign ministers’ gabfest, was a clear and pointed message from Beijing. Manila, with photos of the Filipino and Chinese foreign ministers smiling widely, was now firmly in Beijing’s corner. A further message: Good Morning, Vietnam! You’re going to have to go it alone on this one.” True enough, with Cayetano reportedly absent in the thick of deliberations, Vietnam (with the help of Malaysia) had to be the one to insist a tougher stance.
Reporting statements, the press customarily notes salient points. In the case of the joint communiqué, both local and foreign press did well to capture what the statements did not include. The local press could do better in expanding the discussion with analysis in news accounts, as their foreign counterparts are able to do.
Explanatory reports have a different impact from what one reads in Op-Ed sections. It helps the formation of a strong national consensus on foreign policy issues when these separate sections provide a coherent view of the pursuit of our national interest.