JAKARTA, INDONESIA — ASEAN foreign ministers will gather in Indonesia on Tuesday for talks set to be dominated by the crisis in Myanmar, with the regional bloc divided over how or whether to reengage with the coup-wracked country’s ruling junta.
The two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting will be followed by talks with Beijing, Washington and other powers where top US diplomat Antony Blinken will seek to push back on China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
ASEAN has long been decried as a toothless talking shop, and it remains split over diplomatic attempts to resolve the Myanmar crisis.
The country has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government more than two years ago and unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissent.
A Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP that “extra efforts” were being made in the days before the meeting to unite the group around the issue.
However, the official was “not too optimistic” that would happen given that a “few members have different perspectives on how to approach the problem”, they said.
Myanmar remains an ASEAN member but has been barred from high-level meetings over the junta’s failure to implement a five-point plan, agreed two years ago, to end the violence and restart negotiations to resolve the crisis.
ASEAN efforts to kick-start the plan’s execution have been fruitless, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents.
Thailand, meanwhile, hosted the junta’s foreign minister for controversial “informal talks” last month, deepening the divisions between the ASEAN members that attended and abstained.
The bloc’s initiatives are limited by its charter principles of consensus and noninterference, but analysts say the meeting could push members to do more.
“It is hoped there will be a clearer implementation plan on what will ASEAN do going forward,” Lina Alexandra of Jakarta-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.
The meeting would be a “crucial” opportunity for Indonesia as ASEAN chair to unite the regional bloc after the Thailand talks, she said.
On Thursday, an ASEAN-plus-three ministerial meeting with Japan, South Korea and China will take place ahead of an 18-nation East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting on Friday, which will also include Washington and Beijing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to attend the latter meeting, again putting him in the same room as US Secretary of State Blinken after a brief March meeting as Moscow’s Ukraine invasion grinds on.
Beijing’s actions in the dispute-rife South China Sea will also be high on the agenda, Daniel Kritenbrink, the top US diplomat for East Asia, told reporters Saturday.
China has made sweeping claims in the strategic waterway despite protests from ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as other nations who argue for unimpeded freedom of navigation and that their own territorial claims be respected.
The United States and ASEAN will seek to “push back on behaviour that runs counter to that vision and to those principles, including the many irresponsible acts that we’ve seen carried out by China over the last several years”, Kritenbrink said.