Southeast Asian leaders convened for their final summit of the year in Jakarta, hosted by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. With pressing regional challenges taking center stage:
- Myanmar’s ongoing political unrest and civil strife.
- Renewed tensions in the disputed South China Sea.
- The deepening United States-China rivalry.
ASEAN’s Unity under Scrutiny
The absence of U.S. President Joe Biden, who typically graces these occasions, weighed heavily on the bloc’s spirit. The 10-state group’s customary displays of unity, such as collective handshakes, faced an ominous backdrop. Ahead of the main summit, ASEAN foreign ministers gathered. Indonesia’s coordinating minister, Mohammad Mahfud, emphasized that the community’s strength is consistently being tested by successive crises. He further pointed out:
- Recent tensions in the geopolitical landscape could potentially push the region into open conflict.
- The unresolved situation in Myanmar has adversely impacted ASEAN’s image.
Myanmar’s Chairmanship Ceded
Myanmar’s military junta, which took power in 2021, suffered another setback in its quest for international acceptance:
- The decision to bypass Myanmar for the bloc’s rotating leadership in 2026.
- The Philippines set to assume the chairmanship in 2026.
- The Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., confirmed his country’s readiness to lead the bloc into a new era.
The ASEAN charter dictates that a member state taking the helm will lead the ASEAN summit, related summits, and various other group activities. This change in leadership marks a significant departure from the traditional rotation based on member states’ alphabetical order in English.
Response to Myanmar’s Situation
As Myanmar grapples with the aftermath of a military coup, ASEAN faces criticism over its approach:
- ASEAN’s response will continue to be based on an existing, albeit criticized, peace plan.
- Calls for Myanmar’s military to reduce violence and end attacks on civilians.
- Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign ministry voiced its displeasure, emphasizing that their views were not genuinely considered.
- The formation of an informal “troika” approach to address the Myanmar situation ensures continuity.
ASEAN: A Stage for Power Rivalries?
In his opening remarks, President Joko Widodo called for unity, cautioning against the bloc becoming an arena for global power struggles. He stated, “Don’t turn our ship into an arena for rivalry that is destructive.”
The growing tensions between the U.S. and China overshadowed the summit:
- Some ASEAN nations cultivate robust ties with Beijing, while others remain cautious.
- China’s recent release of a “10-dash line” map, asserting its claims in the South China Sea, has drawn criticism. ASEAN countries with overlapping claims in the waters, including Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have denounced this claim.
Strategic Waterway Tensions
The South China Sea has long been a point of contention, with its rich resources and strategic location. The introduction of China’s “10-dash line” map has only intensified concerns:
- Nations such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are not only looking to safeguard their territorial claims but also to ensure the freedom of navigation.
- As ASEAN member states deliberate on a comprehensive strategy, there’s an evident urgency to finalize a code of conduct for the waterway to prevent any potential escalation.
Upcoming Meetings and Participants
- An East Asia summit will be held later this week, expanding the forum to include other significant players such as China, India, Japan, Russia, and the U.S.
- U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will represent the country in the absence of President Biden.
- Chinese Premier Li Qiang is also slated to attend.
This year’s summit brings to the fore ASEAN’s ongoing challenge in navigating a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, with the Myanmar situation and superpower rivalries demanding urgent attention, and the bloc’s commitment to unity being put to the test.
The 2023 ASEAN Summit, replete with its challenges and deliberations, underscores the complexity of regional geopolitics. While the path ahead is laden with obstacles, the collective spirit of Southeast Asian nations, rooted in unity and cooperation, offers hope for a harmonious future.