Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has shown defiance to ASEAN but the bloc may nonetheless accept his elections as legitimate. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

Media focus has begun to shift from Taipei to Phnom Penh, which is hosting three days of multiple ASEAN-centric meetings involving in-person meetings of dozens of foreign ministers from all the major stakeholders of the Indo-Pacific region.

Starting with the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, these also include the ASEAN+3 Ministerial Meeting and the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting, as well as individual dialogue partner nations’ meetings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – all culminating on Friday with the 29th Ministerial Meeting of the 27-member ASEAN Region Forum (ARF). 

In the midst of the four-month-old Ukraine crisis and more recently Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and the worsening of US relations with both Moscow and Beijing, dozens of bilateral meetings among middle powers in Phnom Penh are expected to bring up some interesting new prognoses.

At the least, these are likely to reinforce the impact of ASEAN “centrality” as the key to stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific region, which is currently becoming vulnerable to contested equations among major powers resulting in increased volatility in the region.

However, how enduring this unanimous refrain for ASEAN “centrality” in Phnom Penh will prove in building consensus remains to be seen.

In fact, ASEAN cementing its equations among European and other emerging economies perhaps most aptly showcases this drift toward strengthening of middle powers’ synergies.

For instance, these meetings in Phnom Penh also include celebrations of 45 years of EU-ASEAN partnership and hosting of the annual EU-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. Among others, that meeting is expected to adopt a Plan of Action for 2023-2027 and finalize details of a Commemorative Summit involving all 27 European Union members to be held in Brussels in December. 

Only last year the EU upgraded its Mission to ASEAN as a full-fledged EU Delegation and issued the “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” last September, both underlining the “centrality” of ASEAN. Indeed, ASEAN centrality has come to be the refrain that conjoins this region’s friends and foes alike and can be seen in various strategy reports issued by these countries.

India this year is celebrating 30 years of dialogue partnership with ASEAN with a series of events including the foreign ministers’ meeting that was held in June and a summit meeting scheduled for October. India has also maintained that ASEAN-driven efforts in the Indo-Pacific region should focus on local issues and avoid getting distracted into great-power geopolitics. 

The initial reflection of this shift toward strengthening ASEAN centrality can be seen in regional issues gaining traction over major powers’ geopolitics.

While each of these meetings in Phnom Penh will see participants pushing their own priorities, collectively these parleys are expected to seek ASEAN-driven consensus on specific issues, as was underlined during the preparatory Senior Officials Meeting last week, where they tried building consensus on challenges flowing from the Covid-19 pandemic, and situations in Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.

Power politics persists

In reality, however, all of these regional issues remain entangled with major powers’ contestations, making norm-building a rather difficult enterprise.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Myanmar, for instance, has made headlines emphasizing how he described the military junta as Russia’s “friendly and long-standing partner” underlining no change in Moscow’s Myanmar policy even as the military has used Russian Yak-130 aircraft in attacks on its civilian population. 

Reports about Pyongyang’s next nuclear test have also triggered scary scenarios in media. No doubt, the ARF has been the only forum in which North Korea has always participated since 2000. It was at the Bangkok ARF of that year that then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright first met with North Korean representative Paek Nam Sun. That was the first such meeting since the Korean War of 1950-53 and was soon followed by her historic visit to Pyongyang.

But even though ARF meetings in the past may have facilitated talks between the US and North Korea, there are no expectations this time of any such encounter in Phnom Penh leading to a revival of dialogue between the Kim Jong Un regime and US President Joe Biden’s administration.

In any case, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken only last month met with China’s Wang Yi at the Group of Twenty Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bali. Likewise, Blinken had this year’s first phone conversation with Lavrov only last week.

The recent Biden-Xi Jinping online conversation likewise was no more than verbose posturing. Nevertheless, instead of focusing on ASEAN-driven outcomes, speculations continue to engage in juicy scenarios of a “potentially awkward encounter” that Lavrov or Wang Yi may have with Blinken and what could transpire in such meetings.

This, in spite of the fact that Chinese experts already see “no need for Wang Yi to meet and talk with Blinken any more,” underlining the dangerous implications of Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. Even scheduled meetings between Blinken and host Prime Minister Hun Sen and his foreign minister are being read in the light of US security concerns about Cambodia’s gradual drift toward Beijing. 

Prioritizing Myanmar

ASEAN has too many serious issues at hand to address instead of being distracted by great-power politics. To begin with, intensifying efforts to put a stop to escalating violence in Myanmar remains the most immediate priority for the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. After all, Myanmar has openly rebelled against accepting the ASEAN consensus, which has serious implications for the association’s credibility.

In February last year, Myanmar’s military junta ousted the popularly elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and all the torchbearers of democracy have failed to stave off the visible drift toward a civil war. 

Already, the military junta’s heavy-handed policies have resulted in some 2,100 deaths, while 15,000 others have been imprisoned and  tens of thousands have fled to neighboring countries. This must be a top priority for ASEAN and its friends and allies who have stakes in an ASEAN-led Indo-Pacific region.

So far in dealings with Myanmar, all the efforts of ASEAN have failed to fructify. In April 2021, it asked the military leaders in Myanmar to stop sending representatives to ASEAN meetings until it has complied with the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus for Peace.

ASEAN also appointed Cambodia’s Kung Phoak as the ASEAN Chair’s special envoy for Myanmar to ensure that the junta complied with benchmarks set by ASEAN. But the junta has shown little interest in complying and last week resumed judicial executions by hanging four political prisoners.

It has retaliated by announcing its refusal to send representatives to ASEAN meetings and refused access to the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar, creating a stalemate of a kind.

Before addressing other equally urgent issues, this continued defiance by the Myanmar junta remains the weakest link for ASEAN reclaiming its centrality in the Indo-Pacific region. For other stakeholders as well, this remains the critical prerequisite for all ASEAN-led initiatives for regional stability and peace. 

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.