MS Risk Blog

ASEAN’S summit August 2022 – the beginning of a more cohesive organization?

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The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in a summit held in Cambodia from 3rd-5th August 2022. Cambodia is the chair of ASEAN for 2022, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This summit, officially called the 55th Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN, was the first in-person meeting of the ASEAN since the start of the pandemic. This summit, marked by the tensions between China-US and the crisis in Myanmar, had three main takeaways.

First of all, ASEAN’s members during this summit were in a difficult situation due to the increase of tensions in the region. This summit coincided with the controversial visit to Taiwan of Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives. This was an especially prickly topic for this summit, since tensions with China are a matter of difficult consensus among the ten nations that make up ASEAN, with countries very close to Beijing, such as Cambodia and Laos, and others that maintain a more distant relationship despite strong economic ties (Indonesia, the Philippines). On top of that, during this summit top diplomats of both China and the US were invited (China’s Wang Yi and USA’s Antony Blinken), causing an increase in tension inside the summit. Surprisingly, at the end of the summit ASEAN members agreed on a statement that pointed out the possibility that these “recent events in an area close to the region could destabilize it and eventually lead to a miscalculation, a serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences.” This joint statement is surprising because then years ago, when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN, the country was more reluctant to interfere in China’s domestic and regional moves. Apart from the issue of the Taiwan crisis, country members used this summit as an opportunity to assert their claims once again on the South China Sea. “Fed-up” maritime ASEAN states like Indonesia and the Philippines asserted their own maritime claims using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a framework. To crown it all, at the end of this summit the final communique included these claims, arguing that these maritime disputes in the South China Sea have “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace.” These statements thus prove that ASEAN leaders -regardless of their individual relations with China- have been able to reach a consensus on how to approach -or slightly confront- China, the most powerful country in Asia.

Secondly, this summit of ASEAN was interesting to follow due to the elephant in the room: Myanmar. The situation could be summarized with the words of Prak Sokhonn, the Cambodian foreign minister and host of this year’s summit, when he said that “not even Superman can solve Myanmar’s problems”. The country has been excluded from ASEAN summits in the last months, and the relations between Myanmar and the rest of the ASEAN members have been harmed by Myanmar’s lack of effort to enforce the Five Point Consensus plan (agreed in April 2021). Moreover, Hun Sen acknowledged during the opening of the summit that the situation in Myanmar has worsened as a result of the execution of four activists opposed to the military junta that had “disappointed and disturbed” the ASEAN member countries. Likewise, these executions have been seen as an offense to the efforts of the 2022 ASEAN Chair (Cambodia) and the ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar. These four executions -the first since 1976 in the country- have set a precedent in the junta’s rule and have triggered a more united response from ASEAN. Inside ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei pressed for harder measures against the military junta of Myanmar, which could potentially include the freezing all relations with the junta, the recognition of the National Unity Government, (formed by supporters of the ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi), and sanctions. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, commented that ASEAN will be forced to reconsider the Five Point Consensus peace agreement if Myanmar’s current leaders continue their executions of prisoners. Myanmar is on notice while ASEAN considers its next move. Human Rights groups have asked ASEAN to rethink its approach and demand specific actions and timeframes to end violence in the country as soon as possible. Despite these criticisms, it could be said that ASEAN has shown an unprecedented unity and decision in the approach towards one of its member states.

Finally, ASEAN’s summit in Cambodia was especially relevant due to the presence of international diplomats like China’s Wang Yi; Russia’s Sergey Lavrov; USA’s Antony Blinken and the high representative of the Foreign Policy of the European Union, Josep Borrell. It could be said that this ASEAN summit was used by non-ASEAN leaders for two aims. The first one was that each non-ASEAN actor (China, Russia, Japan, US, EU or India) used this ASEAN summit to try promoting investment and development plans with ASEAN countries. Both China and the US promised ASEAN countries attractive partnerships and investment for development projects. Apart from this, these international actors used their time at the ASEAN summit for bilateral meetings. For example, Blinken (US) and Borrell (EU) held a bilateral meeting, where they discussed the importance of free and open maritime supply routes and supply chains in the region of South-East Asia, amongst other topics. Besides, the planned meeting between the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Yoshimasa Hayashi, was suspended due to comments made by the G7 ministers on the situation in Taiwan, who expressed their concern about what they consider “threatening words” from China. Finally, East Timor, which has enjoyed observer status in ASEAN since 2002, has expressed its willingness to join as a full member of the organization in 2023, when Indonesia will take over the presidency of ASEAN. This international presence and the possibility that ASEAN will include a new member means that the organization is in good health, and that ASEAN members are considered influential actors to take into account in the international area.

ASEAN’s position, despite the current situation of regional and international turmoil, has surprisingly remained intact. What is more, ASEAN has shown during this 55th Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs a level of unity and decisiveness rarely seen before. The members of the group have shown unity in the face of adversity and have managed to work together and establish a common approach to challenges inside their organization (Myanmar) and outside (China). ASEAN will probably have to make difficult decisions in the following months, especially ahead of the next ASEAN meeting in November.