Southeast Asia’s Top Diplomats Convene in Indonesia for ASEAN Meeting

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A soldier walks past the flags of participating nations in the ASEAN Summit, as he guards an area ahead of the 42nd ASEAN Summit held in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia May 8, 2023. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan/File photo

Myanmar Crisis, South China Sea Tensions, and Arms Buildups in Focus at ASEAN Meeting

JAKARTA – Southeast Asia’s most influential diplomats are set to gather in Indonesia this week for crucial talks that will centre on the prolonged civil strife in Myanmar, escalating tensions in the disputed South China Sea, and growing concerns over regional arms buildups. The annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers is expected to attract attention from world powers, including the United States, Russia, and China, who will participate as dialogue partners.

The ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual regional security meeting, may see the attendance of North Korea’s foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, yet remains uncertain. As the meeting unfolds, key figures from various intractable conflicts around the world may also engage on the sidelines of the ministerial discussions.

The top diplomats of ASEAN’s ten member countries – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – will convene on Tuesday and Wednesday. Subsequently, they will be joined by their counterparts from Asian and Western countries on Thursday and Friday.

Protesters hold up a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi and raise three-finger salutes, during a demonstration to mark the second anniversary of Myanmar's 2021 military coup, outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand, February 1, 2023. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

ASEAN, founded in 1967, has been held together by principles of non-interference in domestic affairs and consensus-based decision-making. However, these principles have proven to be both a strength and a limitation, hindering the bloc’s ability to respond promptly to cross-border crises.

Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021, which led to deadly chaos and ongoing violence, has challenged ASEAN’s principles. Despite ASEAN heads of state proposing a five-point plan, including an immediate end to violence and dialogue among all parties, Myanmar’s military government has largely ignored the recommendations. In response, ASEAN took the unprecedented step of barring Myanmar’s military leaders from high-level gatherings.

Indonesia, assuming ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship this year, has been actively engaging with groups in Myanmar and providing humanitarian aid to build trust. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi emphasized the need for an immediate halt to violence in Myanmar, highlighting ASEAN’s concern over the increasing use of force resulting in civilian casualties and infrastructure destruction.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the release of the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 15, 2023. He will be attending the ASEAN Meeting in Jakarta. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger//File Photo
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the release of the 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 15, 2023. He will be attending the ASEAN Meeting in Jakarta. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger//File Photo

U.S., Russia, and China Engage as Dialogue Partners Amid Uncertainty

The ASEAN foreign ministers are under international pressure to address the Myanmar crisis effectively. However, divisions within ASEAN on how to proceed have emerged, with some suggesting easing punitive actions and inviting Myanmar’s top officials back to high-profile summit meetings. Retno reaffirmed that ASEAN would continue to focus on enforcing the five-point plan put forward by the ASEAN leaders.

While the draft communique to be issued by the ASEAN foreign ministers remained silent on the Myanmar crisis, it did reflect concerns over other contentious issues, such as the South China Sea disputes. The communique called for self-restraint in activities that could escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the region.

Countries like Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have long-standing territorial conflicts with China and Taiwan in the South China Sea. ASEAN and China have been negotiating a non-aggression pact to prevent escalation, but progress has been slow. The South China Sea has become a focal point in the rivalry between China and the United States, with both countries flexing their military presence in the region.

A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng
A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

The ASEAN foreign ministers expressed concern over the growing arms race and naval power projection in the region, emphasizing the potential for miscalculation and increased tensions that could undermine regional peace, security, and stability.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, director of the Jakarta-based think tank Habibie Center, acknowledged the challenges in resolving the South China Sea disputes but emphasized that ASEAN could take steps to prevent further conflict. She also urged Myanmar’s military government to consider alternative options, highlighting that its determination to hold onto power would only fuel conflicts.

Read Also: ASEAN Urged to Take Action Against Myanmar’s Military Rulers, UN Expert Says

As the ASEAN meetings commence in Jakarta, the focus will remain on finding diplomatic solutions to the regional challenges at hand. The outcome of these discussions will shape the direction of Southeast Asia and its engagement with the global community in the foreseeable future. – Reuters