Jakarta, Sept 5 (AFP/APP):Southeast Asian leaders met in Indonesia on Tuesday to seek a united voice on the years-long Myanmar crisis and tackle rifts over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a 2021 military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissent.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — long decried by critics as a toothless talking shop — has been left divided over how to deal with Myanmar’s junta rulers and its own failed diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.
“The future challenges are getting heavier and they cause competition for influence by the big powers,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, opening one-day talks in the capital Jakarta.
“However, ASEAN has agreed not to become a proxy for any power, and to cooperate with anyone for peace and prosperity,” he said.
“We must ensure that this ship continues to sail and that we have to be captains of our own ship to achieve peace.”
A draft joint communique seen by AFP left blank its Myanmar section, belying the lack of consensus in the 10-member bloc whose peace efforts have so far been fruitless.
Leaders will try to hash out a united position on the conflict as Myanmar’s junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents.
Chair Indonesia has pushed for the junta — which is barred from the bloc’s high-level meetings — to enforce a five-point plan agreed two years ago to end the violence and restart negotiations.
A Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP there was expected to be “an announcement that the Philippines will take over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2026 from Myanmar”.
The diplomat called it “a pragmatic move” as ASEAN members “would be happy that our agenda would not be hijacked” by the crisis and questions over “whether our external partners would turn up” in Myanmar.
A second official, who also declined to be named, said “leaders’ assessment on the progress” of the five-point plan had caused them to discuss the change.
“One of the impacts of their discussion is the rotation of [the] ASEAN Chairman,” the diplomat said, who did not confirm the Philippines would replace Myanmar.
Another regional diplomat said some ASEAN members were pushing for the junta to be re-invited to the meetings.
Thailand has held unilateral meetings with the junta and deposed democracy leader Suu Kyi in recent months, further dividing the bloc.
The junta’s main ally Cambodia will be represented by new Prime Minister Hun Manet on his first foreign visit. He addressed a business summit on Monday, saying Phnom Penh sought constructive dialogue to solve the crisis.
Some in the bloc fear Bangkok’s different track has undermined Indonesia’s “quiet diplomacy” as the ASEAN chair, with Jakarta holding meetings with a range of actors in the conflict over the past year.
But experts said all efforts to speak with the junta over the crisis should be welcomed.
“I think Indonesia and Thailand need to just get along on this and Indonesia needs to give space to others who may have access. It should not be a competition,” former Indonesian ambassador to the United States Dino Patti Djalal told reporters.
China’s actions in the South China Sea — which it claims almost in its entirety — will also feature prominently, according to the draft communique.
China released a new official map last week claiming sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, deepening the rift between Beijing and Southeast Asian countries over the waterway.
The map sparked sharp rebukes from countries around the region, including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Leaders will express concern about “land reclamations, activities, serious incidents” in the waterway, the draft communique said.
Another Southeast Asian diplomatic source said leaders would aim for the “aspirational goal” of concluding talks with China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea by 2026.
Later in the week, Indonesia will host the 18-nation East Asia Summit, which will include the United States, China, Japan, India and Russia.
Representing Beijing and Moscow will be Premier Li Qiang and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. US Vice President Kamala Harris will attend in place of President Joe Biden, taking part in a roundtable with Moscow’s top diplomat