ASEAN at the center of recent international fora

In the second decade of November this year, the focus of international political life turned to Southeast Asia. There, in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, calendar meetings of several international associations were held with the participation of leaders from the region and beyond.

The very concentration of such events in Southeast Asia is further evidence of the growing importance of this region in contemporary global processes, which are centered on a set of relations between the world’s major powers. The complexity and acuteness of the contradictions between the latter could not but be reflected in the nature and the outcomes of all the events mentioned.

But for the purposes of this text, let’s focus on those of the above events whose organizer and main actor was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which brings together all ten countries of Southeast Asia. The events in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, with its key participation, took up the first part (from November 11 to 13) of all the summits held in Southeast Asia.

The main body of ASEAN’s life is the summit of representatives from its member countries. It is held twice a year, but due to problems with Covid-19, both of this year’s summits (the 40th and 41st) were held on the same day on November 11. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wide-ranging statement on their outcome can be found here.

Paragraphs 86, 87 and 104 of this document focus on one of ASEAN’s major domestic issues, which remains the situation in Myanmar, also a member of the association. The first two focus on Rakhine State, which until recently was home to around one million people belonging to the Muslim Rohingya community. After falling victim to yet another internal conflict – of which Myanmar is rife with all kinds – the Rohingya fled almost entirely to neighboring Bangladesh in the fall of 2017.

Since then, the problem of a genuinely plighted people has been part of the main diet of such a phenomenon on the body of contemporary international politics as the “global human rights movement”. Together with feminists, ecologists, fighters against “human factors in climate change” and for a “green economy”, for sexual diversity and the rights of infants and dogs, they invariably find themselves on the cutting edge of the notorious “collective West” attacks against geopolitical opponents and unwanted governments. For the reason of maintaining constructive relations with the PRC and the Russian Federation, this was both the previous “democratic” government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and (especially) the current military leadership led by General Min Aung Hlaing, which has once again taken control of an extremely complex country.

The serious problems in almost all ASEAN countries’ relations with the PRC, which have been discussed repeatedly in the NEO, encourage the former to involve external “balancers” in regional affairs. Although several have emerged as such, of course, Washington remains the most important one. However, nothing in this world is given “for free” and the latter’s readiness to fulfil its designated role has to be paid at the expense of its own geopolitical interests.

This includes the need to discredit and undermine the incumbent regime in Myanmar. This is why in one of last year’s ASEAN outcome documents, confirmed by this year’s summit, there appeared to be some (phrased in rather cautious terms, but still) expression of both “concern over the situation in Myanmar” and willingness to assist “in overcoming the problems encountered” in that country. General Min Aung Hlaing must have been absent from Phnom Penh because of their persistence. Although a year and a half earlier he had attended a similar event in Jakarta.

Incidentally, the short concluding paragraph 105 on the situation in Ukraine (also written in rather general terms) is no more than the same tribute to the need mentioned above.

But the leaderships of ASEAN as a whole (rather tentatively, though), as well as of its member states, cannot fail to realize that a precedent of interference in the internal affairs of a fellow member state (Ukraine is far away from Southeast Asia and its fate is hardly of any real interest there) could open a “Pandora’s box”. In which, until now, potential threats to the very existence of ASEAN have been hidden.

For this association is a rather amorphous conglomerate (nothing like a bureaucratized EU) of very different member states. Each has its own internal problems (including those of “human rights” nature) and its own preferences among the external “balancers” mentioned above. The non-relevance of the partners’ internal problems and a completely consensual approach in joint activities were from the outset the main condition for the formation and subsequent functioning of ASEAN. The case of Myanmar clearly violates this.

It should be noted in this regard that Russia’s position on the nature of developments in that country is that it should be left entirely to its people and government. On the basis of this starting position, the Russian Federation is developing relations with Myanmar, progress on which was recorded during the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the country on August 3. A dust-up between him and his US counterpart Antony Blinken over relations with Myanmar broke out immediately after that trip during a ministerial meeting of the East Asia Summit, one of the forums established on the basis of ASEAN.

Of several other venues established at different times on the basis of the same ASEAN, which were already engaged between November 11 and 13 this year, let’s focus on the ASEAN+1 format. Within it, the countries of Southeast Asia interact with several significant external players, but each separately.

The global media is presenting the upgrading of the bilateral relationship from a “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” as the main outcome of the ASEAN+US summit. The author is skeptical about such word games. On the internet, for example, one can find a detailed discussion of various aspects pointing at the inaccuracy of the second formula.

Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the aforementioned change in the formula denoting the US-ASEAN relationship means virtually nothing at all. The semantic content of such a change is seen in the symbolic signal ASEAN has sent to the US: “You are no less important to us than China. And our relationship with it has been defined by this formula since last year.”

But how the situation in the PRC-SEA-US triangle will actually unfold, only real events will tell. So far one can observe there an intensified competition between Beijing and Washington, and the situation as a whole looks like a political seesaw. The trend towards a rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States has been evident for some time. But a week before the events under discussion in Phnom Penh, Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Beijing, where he was warmly received by Xi Jinping. As for most other ASEAN countries, the PRC is Vietnam’s main trading partner.

The US-China struggle for the Philippines continues unabated. In Bangkok, on the sidelines of the APEC summit, the Chinese leader met with that country’s new president, F. Marcos Jr. But, with the end of the said summit, US Vice-President K. Harris went to the same Philippines. The accompanying commentary unanimously points to the struggle factor as the main motive for this trip.

Naturally, Beijing will by no means withdraw from it, as the Southeast Asian region is extremely important to it (from all points of view). The intention to establish itself firmly in Southeast Asia is evidenced by the content-rich “Joint Statement” adopted at the end of the ASEAN+China forum in Phnom Penh on November 11. As part of the various aspects of bilateral cooperation reflected therein, the reaffirmation of the “comprehensive strategic partnership” status, the positive acknowledgement that the bilateral agreement on the establishment of a free trade area and the establishment of the China-Singapore trade and transport corridor in the region have begun to take shape, were also noteworthy.

The author expected to see in this document some reflection of twenty years of negotiations on what is arguably the key issue in China’s relations with the Southeast Asian countries, the regulation of the parties’ behavior in the South China Sea. But nothing has been found on the subject.

Of course, the recent ASEAN-based events have not gone unnoticed by the Japanese leadership, whose comprehensive presence in Southeast Asia is becoming increasingly visible. It is important to note that it is received quite positively by the countries of the region. Prime Minister F. Kishida, who was delayed in arriving (for domestic reasons), participated in the ASEAN+Japan and ASEAN+3 formats (i.e. involving also China and South Korea). At the latter, as far as can be understood, the parties confined themselves to stating their own views on the issues under discussion.

It is noteworthy, as the absence of some kind of joint document in this case reflects the complexity of the overall situation both in the Southeast Asian region and in the surrounding area.

   And there is no reason to see why it would suddenly “simplify” in the foreseeable future.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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