In a summit filled with complexity, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened in Jakarta, Indonesia, from September 5 to 8, 2023. This year, world leaders including Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris and Chinese Premier Li Qiang are attending this summit.
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A number of critical problems that threaten to undermine ASEAN’s diplomatic role in Southeast Asia are at the forefront of discussions. Tuesday, Southeast Asian leaders gathered in Indonesia to seek a unified stance on the decades-long Myanmar crisis and to address divisions over China’s expanding assertiveness in the South China Sea.
ASEAN at a glace
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consists of ten countries, with East Timor on the verge of joining. It is a regional organization that brings diverse communities together to address economic and security concerns.
Looming Challenges of ASEAN
The ASEAN is at a pivotal juncture in its history, confronting a variety of complex challenges that demand deft diplomacy and unity among its member states. Key challenges include-
Myanmar’s ongoing crisis
Myanmar’s protracted political crisis presents as a defining challenge for the regional organization at the 2023 ASEAN summit. Despite agreeing to a “five-point consensus” in April 2021 intended at ending the political crisis in Myanmar, the country’s military junta led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has continued its violent crackdown on dissent. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), over 4,000 protesters and civilians have lost their lives, with approximately 20,000 more detained; which drew condemnation from the international community.
The inability of ASEAN to adopt a unified stance on the crisis in Myanmar has raised questions about the organization’s relevance and diplomatic credibility. Thailand, for instance, split ranks with the bloc by engaging with Myanmar’s military government and even welcomed General Min Aung Hlaing. East Timor, Malaysia, and Indonesia convened with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government established by elected lawmakers and former leaders.
Charles Santiago, co-chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, has criticized ASEAN’s inability to address the Myanmar crisis and questioned whether the organization’s foreign affairs are dictated by its member states or by external factors.
“The future challenges are getting heavier and they cause competition for influence by the big powers,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, opening one-day talks in the capital Jakarta.
“However, ASEAN has agreed not to become a proxy for any power, and to cooperate with anyone for peace and prosperity. We must ensure that this ship continues to sail and that we have to be captains of our own ship to achieve peace,” he said.
East Timor’s concern
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmo of East Timor has stated that his country cannot tolerate military coup governments and may reconsider joining ASEAN if the conflict is not resolved.
“Timor-Leste will not be joining the ASEAN if ASEAN cannot convince the military junta in Myanmar [to end the conflict],” Gusmão said in a statement.
Analysts suggest that ASEAN’s founding states should co-lead efforts to exert pressure on the junta and engage with the National Unity Government (NUG), an alternative Myanmar government established by elected lawmakers, in order to resolve this impasse.
South China Sea dispute
The South China Sea dispute remains a persistent challenge. In addition to China’s expansive territorial claims, the South China Sea dispute involves competing claims by several ASEAN member states, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. The diverse approaches of ASEAN nations have revealed the organization’s diversity of viewpoints.
The South China Sea remains a contested space in which ASEAN’s dialogue over its challenges is an objective in itself,” said Alessio Patalano, a professor of war and strategy in East Asia at King’s College London.
Recent incidents involving China, such as the use of water cannons to attack Filipino vessels and the dissemination of a contested map, have caused concern. Despite the fact that ASEAN has discussed accelerating negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the region’s stability is threatened by competing territorial claims and the militarization of disputed areas. While maintaining its territorial claims, China has expressed its commitment to regional security and cooperation.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang has also said on Wednesday that it is important to avoid a “new Cold War” when dealing with conflicts between countries as world leaders gathered in Indonesia amid sharpening geopolitical rivalries across the Indo-Pacific region.
Geopolitical rivalries in the Indo-Pacific region also influence the internal dynamics of ASEAN. As the United States and China compete for influence, ASEAN struggles to maintain unity and resolve contentious issues. The dispute has attracted the attention of major global powers, including the United States and China, both of which wish to assert their interests in this vital maritime trade route. The diplomatic posture of Thailand toward Myanmar has further strained the bloc’s cohesion.
In conclusion, the Jakarta ASEAN summit highlights the difficulties the organization confronts in navigating complex regional issues and maintaining its relevance. The outcomes of these discussions will affect not only the future of ASEAN, but also the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.