JAKARTA, INDONESIA — ASEAN foreign ministers gathered in Indonesia on Tuesday for talks dominated by the crisis in Myanmar, with the regional bloc divided over how or whether to reengage with the country’s ruling junta.
The two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting will be followed by talks later in the week 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.
Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government more than two years ago, unleashing a bloody crackdown on dissent.
ASEAN has long been decried as a toothless talking shop, and it remains split over diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.
Those fractures were laid bare in a draft joint communique seen by AFP, where a section on Myanmar was left blank.
“The para is still being discussed… member countries are still taking time to propose their submission,” a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP.
ASEAN members were making “extra efforts” before the meeting — a prelude to a leaders’ summit in September — to unite the group around the Myanmar issue, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The official was “not too optimistic” that would happen given that a “few members have different perspectives”, 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 resolve the crisis.
Thailand hosted the junta’s foreign minister for controversial “informal talks” last month, deepening the divisions between ASEAN members.
Cambodia sent a junior diplomat while ASEAN chair Indonesia and Malaysia snubbed the meeting.
Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo told reporters on the meeting’s sidelines the Thailand talks would be discussed but members were “going to talk about Myanmar again”.
His Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai told reporters Bangkok wants Myanmar to be represented again at future meetings.
“Yes, we’d like to see it — meaning all ASEAN members,” he said, without specifying if he meant the junta.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi appeared to take aim at divisions within the bloc.
“Our differences should not be an excuse for us to abandon pressing human rights issues in our own region,” she said in remarks opening a session.
The bloc’s initiatives are limited by its charter principles of consensus and non-interference, but analysts say the meeting could push members to do more.
“It is hoped there will be a clearer implementation plan on what ASEAN will do going forward,” Lina Alexandra of Jakarta-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.
On Thursday, an ASEAN-plus-three ministerial meeting with Japan, South Korea and China will take place ahead of the ASEAN Regional Forum and 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.
China will be represented by top diplomat Wang Yi instead of Foreign Minister Qin Gang, a Southeast Asia diplomat told AFP.
Qin was unable to attend due to “health reasons”, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in response to an AFP question at a daily briefing.
North Korea — which will participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum — has decided against sending Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, Indonesian officials said.
Washington and ASEAN will seek to “push back” on Beijing’s actions in the dispute-rife South China Sea, top US diplomat for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters Saturday.
China has made sweeping claims in the strategic waterway despite protests from several ASEAN members who argue for unimpeded freedom of navigation and that their own territorial claims be respected.
The draft ASEAN joint communique called for self-restraint in the waterway and said there was “positive momentum” in talks over a code of conduct.
The document also called on members to uphold a decades-old treaty preserving Southeast Asia as a “nuclear-free” region.
“We cannot be truly safe with nuclear weapons in our region,” Indonesian FM Marsudi told ministers in her opening remarks.
“With nuclear weapons, we are only one miscalculation away from apocalypse and global catastrophe.”