Southeast Asian leaders led by Indonesian host President Joko Widodo are gathering in their final summit this year, besieged by divisive issues with no solutions in sight: Myanmar’s deadly civil strife, new flare-ups in the disputed South China Sea, and the longstanding United States-China rivalry.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings will open Tuesday in the Indonesian capital Jakarta under tight security. The absence of U.S. President Joe Biden, who typically attends, adds to the already somber backdrop of the 10-state bloc’s traditional show of unity and group handshakes.
After discussions Tuesday, the ASEAN heads of state would meet Asian and Western counterparts from Wednesday to Thursday, providing a wider venue that the U.S. and China, and their allies, have used for wide-ranging talks on free trade, climate change and global security. It has also become a battleground for their rivalries.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang was set to join the meetings, including the 18-member East Asia Summit. There, he would meet U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris — who will fly in lieu of Biden — and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
While skipping ASEAN, Biden will fly to Asia for the G20 summit in India, then visit Vietnam to elevate ties. Washington says Biden was not relegating the bloc to a lower rung of geopolitical priorities and cited the U.S. president’s effort to deepen America’s engagement with the region.
“It’s hard to look at what we’ve done as an administration, since the very beginning, and come away with a conclusion that we are somehow not interested in the Indo-Pacific or that we are deprioritizing the Southeast Asia nations and those relationships,” John Kirby, a national security spokesperson, said at a news briefing Friday in Washington.
In November, Biden attended the ASEAN summit meetings in Cambodia and in May 2022 hosted eight of the bloc’s leaders at the White House to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to their region while dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration has also been strengthening an arc of security alliances in the Indo-Pacific, including in Southeast Asia, alarming China.
Marty Natalegawa, a respected former foreign minister of Indonesia, expressed disappointment over Biden’s non-appearance, but said such red flags were more alarmingly emblematic of ASEAN’s declining relevance.
“The absence of the U.S. president, while it is disappointing and symbolically significant, is for me the least of the worry because what’s more worrisome actually is the more fundamental structural tendency for ASEAN to become less and less prominent,” Natalegawa told The Associated Press in an interview.
Founded in 1967 in the Cold War era, ASEAN has a principle of non-interference in each member state’s domestic affairs. It also decides by consensus, meaning even one member can shoot down any unfavorable decision or proposal.
Those bedrock rules have attracted a starkly diverse membership, ranging from nascent democracies to conservative monarchies, but have also restrained the bloc from taking punitive actions against state-sanctioned atrocities.
The bloc currently groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Natalegawa said ASEAN’s failure to effectively rein in Myanmar’s military government from committing human rights atrocities and its “deafening silence” when a Chinese coast guard ship recently used a water cannon to block a Philippine supply boat in the disputed South China Sea underscore why the group’s aspiration to be in the center of Asian diplomacy has been questioned. Member states have turned to either the U.S. or China for security, he said.
“Absenteeism by ASEAN is leading to unmet needs, and those needs are being met elsewhere,” he said.
Myanmar’s civil strife, which has dragged on for more than two years after the army ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the South China Sea disputes were again expected to overshadow the Jakarta summit agenda, as in previous years. Indonesia tried to swing the focus to boosting regional economies with an upbeat theme this year — “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” — but the geopolitical and security issues have continued to pester and spark diplomatic fallouts.
The European Union has warned that its relations with ASEAN may be affected if it has to deal with Myanmar in any leadership role. Following the EU warning, Myanmar’s military-led government, which has not been recognized by — but remains a member of — ASEAN, gave notice that it may not be able to chair the regional bloc as scheduled in 2026, two Southeast Asian diplomats told the AP.
ASEAN leaders would have to decide in Jakarta whether to ask the Philippines to replace Myanmar as host for that year, said the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to publicly discuss the issues.
Myanmar could also not assume a three-year role starting next year as coordinator of ASEAN-EU relations, according to the two diplomats.
Myanmar’s generals and their appointees have been barred from attending ASEAN’s leaders and foreign ministerial meetings, including this week’s summit meetings, after the military government failed to fully comply with a five-point peace plan that called for an immediate end to violence and the start of dialogue between contending parties, including Suu Kyi and other officials, who have been locked up in jail since they were overthrown.
About 4,000 people have been killed and more than 24,400 people arrested since the army takeover in Myanmar, according to the advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
In a crucial reform that would allow ASEAN to respond faster and prevent such crises from degenerating into deadly disasters, its member states have discussed proposed rules that would allow the group to make a decision even in the absence of consensus from all member states, one of the two diplomats said.
Dinna Prapto Raharja, a Jakarta-based analyst and professor on international relations, said ASEAN’s credibility is on the line if the Myanmar crisis drags on. While the bloc has no conflict-resolution mechanism for such domestic strife, it should be flexible enough to harness its clout and connections to help address such problems.
“ASEAN continues to say that it’s so difficult, it’s so complex,” she said. But, “as time goes by, all these opportunities simply evaporate.”