Foreign ministers from ASEAN countries and China are set to meet in person next week for the first time in more than a year, amid a political crisis in neighboring Myanmar and as a new administration in Washington looks to deepen American engagement with Southeast Asia.
The meeting will take place Monday and Tuesday in Chongqing, a city in southwestern China, said Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah, who confirmed to BenarNews that his county’s top diplomat, Retno Marsudi, would attend.
Ade Padmo Sarwono, the Indonesian ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said that increasing cooperation between the regional bloc and China was high on the agenda, but he declined to give further details.
The meeting in Chongqing comes as ASEAN seeks to remain in the lead in efforts to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, where a Feb. 1 military coup toppled the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The regional bloc has been unable to make any headway, although it was not immediately known what transpired during a Friday meeting in Myanmar between officials from ASEAN chair Brunei and Burmese junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.
China’s role in helping Myanmar get out of the political crisis was crucial because of Beijing’s economic influence in the region, said Muhammad Arif, a China researcher at Universitas Indonesia.
“ASEAN wants China to do what the U.S. has done, to support ASEAN’s leadership on Myanmar,” Arif told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“China needs to be worried because the Myanmar crisis can undermine regional stability.”
Critics had blamed ASEAN’s inability to name an envoy to Myanmar – as was agreed in a five-point consensus at a special summit in Jakarta in late April – on divisions within the regional bloc.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, some observers had said, would “assist” ASEAN foreign ministers in agreeing on an envoy to Myanmar at next week’s meeting.
‘Initiatives by the Biden Administration’
In early May, China had proposed the meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers from June 6 to 8, said Carlyle A. Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales and director of the Thayer Consultancy, in a brief about the meeting that he posted online.
“The reason for this meeting ostensibly was to discuss the situation in Myanmar. [But] Clearly, China was responding to initiatives by the Biden Administration as well as ASEAN,” wrote the Southeast Asia regional specialist.
Since taking office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to deepen Washington’s engagement with Southeast Asia. Former U.S. President Donald Trump had skipped ASEAN summits for three years in a row, attending only the 2017 meeting.
“On 27-28 January 2021, immediately after Anthony Blinken was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Secretary of State on 26 January, he made telephone calls to his counterparts in the Philippines and Thailand, Teodoro Locsin and Don Pramudwinai, respectively, to propose U.S.-ASEAN ministerial-level talks,” Thayer said.
But the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar derailed Blinken’s proposal for a U.S.-ASEAN ministerial meeting, Thayer said.
This week, however, Wendy Sherman, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, visited three ASEAN countries – Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia.
During her stopover in Bangkok, Sherman reiterated Washington’s commitment to Thailand in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic. She noted that the U.S. had given $30 million in coronavirus-related aid to Thailand.
Sherman noted that the Biden administration’s decision to donate 80 million doses to other countries was “five times more than any other country.”
On Thursday, the White House announced that of the initial 25 million doses the United States will share, approximately 7 million will go to countries in South and Southeast Asia.
President Biden said that sharing these doses was “not to secure favors or extract concessions.”
Some ASEAN countries with some of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, including Indonesia, have been the beneficiaries of Chinese-made vaccines.
Washington ‘must change approach to ASEAN’
According to Thayer, another imperative for China hosting ASEAN foreign ministers next week was developments to do with the Quad, which consists of four Asia-Pacific countries: the United States, India, Japan and Australia.
Biden hosted the first virtual summit of the Quad on March 12, and the four nations agreed to deliver 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific nations by 2022.
A joint statement issued after the summit did not mention China’s increased activities in the South China Sea. But it did call for “collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in East and South China Seas.”
Rene Pattirajawane, associate fellow at the Habibie Center and chair of the China Studies Center Foundation in Jakarta, said ASEAN would not gain much from the Quad, because it focuses on security rather than more practical cooperation.
“Quad is packaged as a form of military pact to contain China. This is clearly against ASEAN’s basic principles,” Rene told BenarNews.
“ASEAN must adhere to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which is the basis for coexistence, regardless of disputes involving countries outside the region.”
The bloc has to act in accordance with the treaty’s basic principle of peaceful coexistence, regardless of the problems faced by countries inside and outside the region, Rene said.
The United States, he further said, needed to prioritize improving relations with ASEAN rather than trying to contain China.
As it is, the U.S. joined the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2011, six years after the forum was formed, while China participated from the start. In addition to ASEAN countries, China and the U.S., EAS comprises Australia, India, Japan and South Korea.
“The U.S. has never attended the annual East Asia Summit. The U.S. must change its approach to ASEAN,” Rene said.
“This region doesn’t follow the doctrine ‘You’re either with us or against us.’”
Chinese ‘incursions’ in Southeast Asia
Still, while it appears that Beijing may have a lead on Washington in engagement with ASEAN, recent events in Southeast Asia have given the region some pause. At next week’s meeting, ASEAN’s foreign ministers may well bring up these issues with their Chinese counterpart.
Earlier this week, Malaysia said it would lodge a diplomatic protest with Beijing over what it said was Chinese incursion into its maritime air space.
Malaysia said 16 Chinese military planes flew to as close as 60 nautical miles from Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali – also known as Luconia Shoals – which Beijing, too, claims as part of its territories in the maritime region.
Malaysia planned to summon the Chinese envoy as well over this incident which, it said, “was a threat to national sovereignty and aviation safety.”
Earlier, in March, the Philippines said that China had deployed 220 maritime militia and fishing boats in its maritime territory in the South China Sea.
Manila and Beijing have since prolonged a war of words over the issue, and in April, Washington warned that an armed attack on the Southeast Asian nation and former American colony would force the U.S. to aid its ally under a decades-old treaty.
These Chinese “incursions,” the Myanmar crisis, COVID-19 vaccines, China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure projects, and upgrading relations as part of the 30th anniversary of ties between Beijing and ASEAN, will likely be the points of discussion during the Chongqing meeting, Thayer said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.