Myanmar’s unprecedented exclusion . . .
Southeast Asia’s government leaders kicked off the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on Tuesday, holding the three-day meeting virtually. In an unprecedented sanction, ASEAN barred the attendance of Myanmar’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing. As the current ASEAN chair, Brunei originally invited Myanmar’s U Chan Aye – permanent secretary for the junta’s foreign ministry and seasoned diplomat – as a “non-political” representative for the summit. However, the junta refused, arguing that snubbing General Hlaing in favour of a non-military representative put Myanmar on unequal footing. ASEAN’s decision is its strongest censure of Myanmar’s military leadership to date. Leaders such as Malaysia’s Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo supported the “difficult” decision due to Myanmar’s failure to end ongoing violence and allow humanitarian assistance. Non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states is one of ASEAN’s core tenets.
The new regional darling . . .
On Wednesday, ASEAN also hosted the East Asia Summit – an 18-leader annual forum for regional dialogue on political, security, and economic issues between ASEAN and key partners in the Pacific. At that summit, the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea pledged to strengthen economic and security co-operation ties with ASEAN. These global and regional powers consider ASEAN essential to the region’s stability and security. ASEAN’s trust of global superpowers, however, has been low, especially during the Trump Administration – which neglected the region while enflaming heated competition with Beijing. In his address to ASEAN leaders, U.S. President Joe Biden promised an initial C$246 million to support the region’s COVID-19 recovery and sustainable development. He further committed to defending freedom of the seas, especially to counter China’s encroachment in the disputed South China Sea. Japan, South Korea, and China also pledged assistance on pandemic response and ASEAN’s economic recovery.
AUKUS in the middle . . .
Despite superpower assurances of support for ASEAN’s central role in the region’s governance, security, and international collaboration, the newly-minted AUKUS security pact between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. continues to cause unease among Southeast Asian leaders. Malaysia and Indonesia have openly expressed their apprehension about AUKUS, fearing it could destabilize relations among neighbours, including China, and trigger an arms race. Another concern is that the ongoing Beijing-Washington rivalry and U.S.-lead security initiatives in the region will erode ASEAN’s centrality as a key decision-making forum, trade hub, and economic bloc.