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ASEAN: Indonesia, Malaysia urge staying out of global rows

September 5, 2023

The meeting of Southeast Asian countries comes as ASEAN is struggling to convince world leaders that it deserves to play a central role in the region.

Political Security Community Council (APSC) Meeting ahead of the ASEAN Summit
Leaders gathering in Jakarta will be primarily concerned with the question of the assertiveness of China in the region and the conflict over MyanmarImage: Mast Irham/AP Photo/picture alliance

Indonesia urged Southeast Asia's ASEAN bloc not to become embroiled in major power disputes on Tuesday, addressing concerns over Myanmar and the group's unity. 

Southeast Asian leaders are meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, with the Myanmar crisis and China's assertiveness in the South China Sea headlining discussions.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo emphasized the need for a relevant long-term strategy, cautioning against the region becoming an arena for external rivalries.

"ASEAN has agreed to not be a proxy to any powers. Don't turn our ship into an arena for rivalry that is destructive," Widodo said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim echoed the sentiment, saying that the bloc must guard against "divisive" actions from major powers.

The ASEAN summit will be followed by talks with Beijing, Washington and other powers later this week at the East Asia summit hosted by ASEAN leaders, where the US will be represented by Vice President Kamala Harris in the absence of President Joe Biden.

The US attendance highlights its endeavors to counter China's influence, particularly in the South China Sea, a significant global trade route.

US-China rivalry and ASEAN's challenges

While Biden's absence raises questions about US commitment, Harris has emphasized Washington's support for regional allies against any form of intimidation.

This follows her previous visits to countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, reinforcing the US stance on China's regional actions.

The rivalry between the two global powers has also exposed fault lines within ASEAN. While countries like the Philippines and Vietnam lean towards Washington, Cambodia is more aligned with Beijing.

US officials and analysts see Beijing's assertiveness in the region as an opportunity for Washington to establish stronger ties with its allies.

China, Myanmar on the agenda

Leaders gathering in Jakarta will be primarily concerned with China's influence in the region and the conflict in Myanmar.

"The eyes of our peoples are on us to prove ASEAN still matters and can contribute towards peace, stability and prosperity in the region," Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on Monday.

Disputes over the South China Sea have been escalating since Beijing released a map claiming large parts of the region.

Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have dismissed China's map claims.

Managing tensions in the South China Sea

Criticism of Myanmar junta

The leaders have also sought to find a joint position on the situation in Myanmar following the 2021 coup. 

In a statement seen by news agency AFP, the ASEAN leaders slammed the Myanmar junta for violence and attacks on civilians.

The leaders "urge the Myanmar Armed Forces in particular, and all related parties concerned in Myanmar to de-escalate violence and stop targeted attacks on civilians, houses and public facilities, such as schools, hospitals, markets," they said in the 19-point statement.

 "We strongly condemned the continued acts of violence in Myanmar," the statement went on.

While Indonesia advocates for Myanmar's junta to adhere to a previously agreed plan to halt violence and resume talks, these pushes have seen no results due to the junta's non-cooperation.

Thailand's separate engagements with the junta and imprisoned former leader Aung San Suu Kyi have intensified ASEAN divisions. 

In an indication of the tensions surrounding Myanmar, Philippines President Ferdinand R Marcos Jr offered to taken on chairing the ASEAN group from the country in 2026.

"It is my pleasure to announce that the Philippines is ready to take the helm and chair ASEAN in 2026," he said said in a surprise announcement to the meeting.

What is ASEAN and how significant is it?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an intergovernmental body that includes 10 Southeast Asian nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The alliance represents over 650 million people and collectively boasts the world's fifth-largest economy.

However, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa acknowledged that ASEAN is struggling to convince world leaders that it deserves to play a central role in the region.

ASEAN emphasizes unity and non-interference, which some argue hinders its response to internal crises like the situation in Myanmar.

"Obituaries on ASEAN actually have been written many times over," Natalegawa said on Monday. "But somehow all those times, ASEAN has been able to reinvent itself and reassert its relevance."

ss/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters)