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The Special Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta on October 27, 2022. Photo: Asean / AFP

Myanmar to top Asean summit agenda as G20 and Apec draw big powers to region

  • Myanmar expected to top agenda at summit as Asean faces growing calls to quickly address growing violence in country
  • Meeting will be a chance for bloc to demonstrate its convening power, and engage G20 and Apec participants to ‘bring about a diffusion of tensions’, analyst says
Southeast Asia’s territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea are likely to take a back seat when officials gather this week amid growing violence in military-ruled Myanmar and heightened Sino-US tensions, analysts have said.
Top diplomats from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean) are set to convene in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh for an annual summit, which is also expected to draw world leaders to the region.
The meeting often takes centre stage in Southeast Asia’s year-end diplomatic bustle but this time, it would wrestle for attention with other high-profile forums, including the G20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ( Apec) summits in Bali and Bangkok, respectively.
All eyes are on a possible face-to-face meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the Indonesian island, a likely highlight of the nine-day stretch of back-to-back summitry.

Still, Myanmar – which has been plunged into chaos since military leaders seized control in a coup last February – would top the agenda at the Asean summit, which kicks off on November 10.

“There is a sense that [countries] are losing patience with Myanmar,” said Dylan Loh, an assistant professor in foreign policy at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The regional bloc had in April last year struck a so-called Five Point Consensus with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing as part of efforts to de-escalate violence in the country but the plan has been met with limited success.

Among the key conditions were the immediate cessation of violence and establishing “constructive dialogue among all parties”.

Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has not been invited for the Asean Summit. Photo: Reuters
Several Asean nations have in recent months expressed great disappointment over the lack of progress in a peace deal, and in a special meeting among the bloc’s foreign ministers last week, they agreed to hold Myanmar to a “concrete” timeline to end violence in the troubled country.

Loh, the assistant professor, said the summit could see Asean – of which Myanmar is a part – take “practical steps” to further sanction the military authorities. This could take the form of barring the appearance of junta officials at a wider range of regional meetings instead of just ministerial-level ones.

Host nation Cambodia had earlier confirmed that Myanmar’s coup leader Min Aung Hlaing was not invited for the Asean summit, similar to the previous year.

“How far and how hard they want to push [for] the outright suspension of Myanmar remains to be seen,” Loh added. “I would imagine that they do not want to push the button yet.”

Foreign ministers at the Special Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta last month. Photo: Indonesian Foreign Ministry/AFP

There have been growing calls in recent months, including from Human Rights Watch, for Asean to suspend Myanmar’s membership to the bloc entirely.

Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, agreed that further limiting Myanmar’s participation in the bloc’s gatherings was possible but added that Asean lacked leverage and resources to entice or pressure the junta to cease their attacks and begin negotiations.

Last month, there were reports of the Myanmar military conducting air strikes on a concert held by a major ethnic rebel group, resulting in around 50 deaths. A local monitoring group estimated that more than 2,300 people have been killed in the military’s crackdown on dissent.

“Asean’s lowest common denominator approach to bringing different governments together may prove too cumbersome to address the complex and evolving circumstances on the ground in Myanmar,” Chong said. “All these limit what the organisation … can do.”


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While Loh was not optimistic that Asean would be able to bring Myanmar’s military back to the fold, he said the regional bloc must not be seen as being passive.

“The outcomes could be suboptimal but it must be seen to be proactive. It’s probably one of the most pressing challenges Asean has faced in recent times,” he said. “It’s going to be a very tricky problem.”

Apart from the Myanmar crisis, Southeast Asian leaders were also expected to air concerns over the deepening rivalry between the United States and China, particularly in terms of regional stability, as well as supply chains, technology and trade, Chong said.

Chinese coastguard ships patrol in the vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in September 2022. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard/EPA-EFE

Another topic of discussion was the region’s territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.

China claims the entire disputed waterway – through which 60 per cent of maritime trade flows – based on “historic rights”. Four Southeast Asian states, namely Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, also count themselves as claimants.

“Other than security, economic stability and growth may feature as well given that slower growth and inflation are concerns to all parties at the summit,” Chong said, adding that there was too a possibility of environmental issues being discussed.

NTU’s Loh expected leaders to also weigh in on other global issues such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and North Korea’s recent missile tests.
Indonesian police officers attend the ceremony of security preparations for the coming G20 summit in Bali. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters

Sharon Seah, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute think tank in Singapore, said Asean was well aware that this year’s summit was “not business as usual”, held against the backdrop of intensifying geopolitical competition.

“Asean’s agenda is always full,” she said.

Some critics have earlier suggested that the Asean summit could be overshadowed by the string of global forums slated to take place in the same week.

But Seah said the summit could instead be a chance for the regional organisation to demonstrate its convening power and to provide a conducive environment for constructive dialogue.

She pointed out that Biden had confirmed his attendance for the East Asia Summit, a broader forum held between Asean states and its dialogue partners such as China, Japan and Australia.

This meant there would be “ample opportunities” for participants from Washington and Beijing to “meet and dialogue” amid fast-souring ties between the two world powers.

“It is very important not to miss these three chances to bring about a defusion of tensions,” she said, referring to the trio of summits.

Signage for the Apec Summit at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre in Bangkok on Wednesday. Photo: AFP
While Xi has not confirmed his attendance at the East Asia Summit, NUS professor Chong said China was likely to send a strong delegation to make its presence felt.
“China has claimed that it is a resident power in East Asia and suggested that the US is not. Having the US president present without the PRC state chairman could make Beijing seem absent,” he said.

If planned sufficiently, the three summits could supplement each other and facilitate extended conversations over the many complex issues the region and the world are facing, Chong added.

“The risk is that the summits do not go well and reinforce impasse or awkwardness. That could create longer-term impediments to working together or even negotiations,” he said.