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Myanmar, South China Sea to Divide, Dominate ASEAN Summit

A ferry service transports passengers and vehicles along the Mekong River in front of the Sokha hotel that will host the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 1, 2022.
A ferry service transports passengers and vehicles along the Mekong River in front of the Sokha hotel that will host the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 1, 2022.

Foreign Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will try and thrash out their differences, ranging from the conflict in Myanmar, to the disputed South China Sea, to admitting East Timor to the bloc, when they meet in Phnom Penh, Cambodia this week.

Bradley Murg, a senior adviser to the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace said the Philippines is expected to raise the South China Sea issue under new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. who is reasserting Manila’s 2016 arbitration award over China at The Hague. That ruling invalidated Beijing’s territorial claims in the waterway.

Ten years ago, when Phnom Penh last held the chair, foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history after Cambodia objected to mentioning China and its confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

It was considered a major diplomatic blunder for the host nation and divisions have emerged ever since with Cambodia, a major benefactor of Beijing’s largesse, often seen by observers as a Chinese proxy within the group.

“This is obviously something that Cambodia’s going to be concerned about in light of the fact that Cambodia’s last chairmanship ended with significant acrimony in light of the inability to reach an agreement,” Murg said.

Most ASEAN countries want a united front on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but critics claim Beijing, which wants to handle negotiations on a country-by-country basis, has used Cambodia to thwart progress on an agreement and to block diplomatic opposition to its maritime claims.

“This is not the topic that Cambodia really wants to be discussing at this ASEAN summit but if the Philippines decides to move forward, and it appears that it’s willing to do so, that could very much dominate the week,” Murg added.

Analysts also said efforts by Prime Minister Hun Sen, as this year’s Chair, to normalize ties between ASEAN and the Myanmar junta had also heightened divisions, made all the worse by last week’s execution of four democracy advocates.

Monday the Myanmar military extended its state of emergency by six months saying promised elections could only take place once a “stable and peaceful” environment had been restored.

“The Myanmar question’s going to continue being on the table, despite Cambodia’s best efforts it appears that the regime continues to consolidate, and that the ASEAN approach alone is simply not going to be sufficient,” Murg said.

He said there was an increased desire by most ASEAN states for a more global approach to Myanmar and this ASEAN meeting would enable them to explore that, but the divisions are stark.

Analysts have also said a troika has emerged with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, who share religious sympathies with Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya, opposed to bringing the junta back into the group after it was banned in response to the February 2021 coup.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights has accused Thailand, Cambodia and Laos of aiding the junta and on Monday the group urged all ASEAN states to recognize the National Unity Government of Myanmar, established by supporters of the ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken added his voice saying he was disappointed with ASEAN for failing to apply any pressure on the junta and its leader, Min Aung Hlaing.

“I think it’s unfortunately safe to say that we’ve seen no positive movement,” Blinken told a news conference in Bangkok. “On the contrary, we continue to see the repression of the Burmese people who continue to see violence perpetrated by the regime.”

Ten additional countries will attend the summit as dialogue partners, including Australia, Japan, India, South Korea. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Blinken will also attend but the U.S. State department has said the pair are not scheduled to meet.

“There are obviously many major issues to be dealt with, including Myanmar and a potential showdown between foreign minister Lavrov from Russia and Antony Blinken,” said David Totten, managing director of Emerging Markets Consulting in Phnom Penh.

“That will be an attention grabber, but I also hope they move on the economies,” he said.

ASEAN economies were devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and global inflation, spurred in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has sharply reduced purchasing power and priced essential items like rice beyond ordinary household budgets.

The number of Southeast Asians living in extreme poverty — defined as less than $1.90 a day — had eased before COVID-19 erupted, falling to 14.9 million in 2019, from 21.2 million people in 2017.

But the Asian Development Bank says the pandemic has pushed nearly five million people back into extreme poverty.

“Poverty is still a big problem in Southeast Asia and people are struggling. The cost of fuel has skyrocketed as has the price of getting goods to market,” Totten said. “Industries like tourism still haven’t recovered and foreign investment needs to make a return to the region.”

Also on the agenda is East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, which has lobbied hard to become the 11th member of the group and has the support of nearly all member states.

Sources say there were two concerns about Dili’s application; its ability to fund the logistics required as an ASEAN member and its close relationship with Beijing.

“There is a fear that Timor Leste will become another voice for China within ASEAN and most of the members don’t want that. Those objections are being led by Singapore,” an analyst close to the Timorese camp said. “China has enough access through Cambodia.”