Frenemy: The challenge of hosting ASEAN 2017

It is about the Philippines taking its turn in hosting the meetings of ASEAN in very challenging times when allies have to understand its community-building efforts under new normals.

So, this is not just about Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte — a colorful “rock star” from some media view, fresh from his debut in the international stage — being perceived as friend or enemy of other countries as he chairs the ASEAN Summit and related meetings of 2017. It is about the Philippines taking its turn in hosting the meetings of ASEAN in very challenging times when allies have to understand its community-building efforts under new normals.

The most important question of any chair of the 50th Anniversary meetings is how the Association can be shaped in the 21st century for the benefit of its own citizens, at the same time that it needs to show the region’s importance in promoting peace and prosperity in chaotic global conditions. To pursue the latter role, ASEAN must operationalize its activities in a more cost-effective organization while priming its existence in the light of “Brexit.”

Thanks to a new road map through 2025 signed by its leaders in Kuala Lumpur in 2015, ASEAN is seriously seeking people to people engagements as it strengthens its Secretariats in Jakarta and those in national capitals. The private sector has been perplexed by the near-100% accomplishment in the ASEAN Economic Community agenda announced in December 2015. Few seem to understand that these refer only to government-led administrative engagements before actions are undertaken by businesses, civil society organizations, and other private sector groups to give life and meaning to official commitments.

ASEAN has given sharper focus to a united disaster management response in Vientiane a few weeks back, underscored by its location in the Pacific Ring of Fire. However, there are other issues the Philippines can shepherd, with help from private sector support, as the region takes center stage in global peace and prosperity in the 21st Asia-Pacific Century, a proposition accepted by world leaders.

Economic gravity is shifting back to Asia after five centuries of systems based on Western colonial models, later supported by an Industrial Revolution. Today, territorial expansion and people subjugation have been replaced by market penetration and focus on mutual benefits, rather than domination, as the new form of economic relationships across countries.

These are based on international production systems where components and parts are shipped across borders for further processing and assembly; ASEAN is a leading participant with its Dialogue Partners in this global value chain of complex goods and services including e-commerce and electronic payments.

It is further shaped by the Digital Revolution and ideological revisions, e.g, capitalism recast not in ownership of physical capital assets but in models of collaboration and sharing, even with competitors. Critical to these are innovative human/intellectual capital, social/relationship capital, and natural resource/environmental capital.

Millennials have even coined the word “frenemy” (friend-enemy) to give the concept of simultaneous cooperation and competition (or co-opetition) a new resonance among the young. They see physical assets not as key but merely as complement to the release of their productive energies. ASEAN has to harness these other forms of capital in its next 50 years.


The past is indeed prologue to the present, but the future is now being shaped by other new normals, of which “frenemy” is just one.

For example, ASEAN cannot continue using its consensus approach in deciding on every major issue affecting its membership. More complex engagement by member-states with other countries and groupings, another new normal, requires a fuller understanding of the raison detr’e of membership in any association.

Why should one member sign on to all actions or statements emanating from any meeting? This is especially true if such member’s concurrence is not critical to the fulfillment of the long-term goal of the issue in a group. Or an issue is still being shaped with other confidence-building measures.

In the absence of a consensus, a Chairman’s statement or summary may be released alternatively. The group is free to move forward in other issues thereby. Such was the case of the South China Sea issue in the Cambodian hosting of the ASEAN Summit a few years back, as ASEAN continuously attempts to complete a Code of Conduct that has taken years of confidence building.

In the classic trade agreements area, consensus is not present either. Only four of ASEAN members (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam) originally signed on to the now moribund Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) championed by the United States, while the entire ASEAN plus six of its Dialogue Partners (China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand) opted for a less stringent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The two initiatives did not diminish ASEAN’s own community building.

The convergence of TPP and RCEP as advanced forms of 20th century trading arrangements is in fact being studied today by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), originally ASEAN-centered (ASEAN views considered in crucial issues, Summits alternately held every two years in an ASEAN capital, etc.) This is one challenge which the Philippines must take leadership responsibility for; hopefully it will be helped by some Friends of the Chair who will extend the ASEAN centrality issue beyond trade matters, e.g., coordination of activities across internal working groups and various outside fora in APEC and the UN system for a more effective ASEAN.

ASEAN itself recognizes the different economic stages of development of the later members who come from socialist perspectives; hence, different deadlines for cutting down tariffs and achieving targets for various liberalization measures are stipulated in many agreements.

In political-security and socio-cultural matters, consensus has to be reviewed against the new normals of how terrorists redefine war, technology transforms governance and financial systems, climate change results in new diseases and migration flows, haze continues to wreak havoc on personal and economic health, and ecological damage in the marine economy affects the shared prosperity of some ASEAN member states. The Philippine theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” embraces these concerns; it must be ready to face its frenemies.

The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines.

Federico M. Macaranas is a member of the M.A.P. ASEAN Economic Community Committee and a professor at the Asian Institute of Management or AIM.

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