Alarm over Myanmar’s deadly civil strife and China’s aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea will be under the spotlight this week when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Indonesia.
Alarm over Myanmar’s still-unfolding deadly civil strife, including an armed attack on an aid convoy, and China’s aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea are expected to be put under the spotlight this week when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Indonesia.
Top diplomats of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations convened Tuesday in the resort town of Labuan Bajo to finalize the agenda ahead of the two-day summit of the 10-nation bloc’s heads of state.
The United States and China are not part of the twice-yearly summit, but their escalating rivalry looms large over the high-profile Asian gathering. Beijing has warned that U.S. efforts to strengthen security alliances and intensify combat-readiness drills with Asian allies would endanger regional stability.
Founded in 1967 in the Cold-War era, ASEAN has struggled to avoid getting entangled in the major-power competition as a bloc. But that often seemed futile given the regional group’s diverse membership — from authoritarian Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, which are closely geopolitically aligned with Beijing, to liberal democracies like the Philippines, which is Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia and recently allowed an expansion of American military presence in the country, to China’s outrage.
The rest — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — have heavy economic and security engagements with the U.S. and China.
“ASEAN wants to remain open, to cooperate with anyone,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, this year’s ASEAN chair. “We also don’t want ASEAN to be anyone’s proxy.”
Bedrock principles of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and deciding by consensus have held the unwieldy club of tyrants, monarchs and democracies together for decades. But that approach has also constrained it from rapidly dealing with crises that spill beyond borders.
Those principles were being tested after Myanmar’s army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and plunged the country into deadly chaos. It’s become one of ASEAN’s gravest crises since its establishment.
Myanmar military airstrikes in April killed as many as 100 people, including many children, who were attending a ceremony by opponents of army rule, according to witnesses.
Lina Alexandra of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta said ASEAN’s inability to persuasively and rapidly address a potential political conflagration like the Myanmar crisis should prompt it to take a second look at its founding principles.
“ASEAN can no longer hide under the principles of non-interference and consensus,” she told the AP. “All of that can work in a non-urgent situation that does not require speed and immediate decision-making to control a crisis.”
Over the weekend, around the time Widodo was frantically calling for an end to such violence, a convoy delivering aid to displaced villagers and carrying Indonesian and Singaporean diplomats came under fire by unidentified men armed with pistols in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state. A security team with the convoy returned fire and a vehicle was damaged, but no one in the convoy was injured, state-run television MRTV reported.
Indonesia had arranged for the delivery of the aid after a long-delayed assessment “but it was very unfortunate that in the middle of the trip there was a shootout,” Widodo said Monday.
“This will not dampen the level of ASEAN and Indonesia to call again to stop violence,” Widodo told reporters Monday, renewing his call for dialogue among contending parties in Myanmar. “This condition will not make anyone win.”
More than 3,450 civilians have been killed by security forces since Myanmar’s military forcibly took power, and thousands more remain imprisoned, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which keeps tallies of casualties and arrests linked to the repression by the military government.
As ASEAN’s current leader, Indonesia has considerably eased its fierce criticism of Myanmar’s military and took “a non-megaphone diplomacy approach” to encourage dialogue and an immediate halt to the violence, which are part of a five-point peace plan Southeast Asian leaders forged with Myanmar’s top general in 2021, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said.
Under international pressure to do more to address the violence, ASEAN leaders stopped inviting Myanmar’s top general to their summits, instead allowing only non-political representatives. Myanmar’s military-led rulers have protested the move as a violation of the bloc’s non-interference policy.
“To put it mildly, the organization is now facing nothing short of an existential crisis,” said Richard Heydarian, a lecturer on international affairs at the state-run University of the Philippines.
Even regional diplomats who were involved in ASEAN work before have either been guardedly optimistic of the bloc or harshly critical of it. When asked by The Associated Press to give one word that best describes the bloc’s current status, a Southeast Asian diplomat replied, “Beleaguered.” Another said, “Opprobium.”
They spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of clearance to comment publicly on the issue.
In a post-summit communique to be issued by Widodo on behalf of the ASEAN leaders, they plan to renew a call for self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea, where China has set off alarms from time to time due to its increasingly assertive actions to fortify its expansive claims.
“Concerns were expressed by some ASEAN member states on the land reclamations, activities, and serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment, which has eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region,” said a draft of the communique, which was obtained by the AP, without naming China.
In a closed-door session of the summit, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. plans to raise a Feb. 6 encounter in which a Chinese coast guard ship used a military-grade laser that temporarily blinded at least two crewmembers of a Philippine patrol vessel off a disputed shoal, a Filipino official told the AP on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to discuss the matter publicly.
Early this year, Marcos granted American forces access to four more Philippine military camps under a 2014 defense pact. Beijing was infuriated by that agreement, which it feared would provide American forces staging grounds to interfere in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Taiwan. Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory to be brought under its control by force if necessary.