The Indo-Pacific region has experienced a series of significant events this summer that have captured the international community’s attention. These events range from major U.S. government officials traveling to China, European actors engaging with the region unprecedentedly, and NATO significantly increasing its attention and proactive participation with various regional actors. This past week another noteworthy event took place—the 13th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the 30th Annual ASEAN Regional Forum. This summit assembled foreign ministers from all its member states (excluding Myanmar) while also bringing together other influential actors with a vested interest in the region.
The importance these countries place in demonstrating their commitment to the region is underscored by China sending former foreign minister and the current head of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, to attend in lieu of then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who did not attend the summit due to health concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were among the prominent participants at the summit.
ASEAN’s importance to the region is evident. Its economies cumulatively totaled 3.66 trillion U.S. dollars in 2022, a significant increase from the previous year. The region also has a particularly young population, as 60 percent of the world’s youth live in the Asia-Pacific region. As geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China continue in the region, ASEAN is determined to increase its capacity and play a larger role in critical challenges of the area. Referred to as ASEAN Centrality, this idea “emphasizes that ASEAN must become the dominant regional platform to overcome common challenges and engage with external powers.”
Thus, global actors all have a vested interest in maintaining influence with the multilateral organization, and attendance is vital for continuing and improving relations with its members. However, ASEAN is still working to ensure it remains a cohesive grouping of states that can accomplish its objectives.
First on the agenda for this meeting was attempting to address the ongoing Myanmar crisis. On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military led a coup and seized power. Since then, more than 16,000 pro-democracy supporters have been arrested, and accusations of war crimes against the Junta have been extensive. In response, ASEAN and its members have attempted to end the ongoing violence and restore stability in the country, most notably through the Five-Point Consensus. However, this endeavor has largely failed.
Recently, there has been some disunity amongst ASEAN members. While the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia, has stayed steadfast in its commitment to forbid Myanmar’s military Junta leaders from attending any ASEAN meetings, Thailand has lately begun subverting these efforts. In June, the outgoing Thai military-backed government announced it would hold meetings to help resolve the ongoing crisis to complement ASEAN actions, which would involve the participation of Myanmar officials. According to documents obtained by Reuters, the current Thai government intends to “fully re-engage Myanmar at the leaders’ level.” Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai also recently stated that he met with imprisoned democratically elected President Aung Sun Suu Kyi. He is the only non-Myanmar official known to have met with Suu Kyi since her imprisonment.
During the summit, Indonesia attempted to reassert unity among all ASEAN members. The Joint Communiqué stated that ASEAN members “discussed the developments in Myanmar and reaffirmed [their] united position that the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) remains [their] main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar.” Moreover, although it was stated that a number of ASEAN members viewed Thailand’s actions positively, any effort should support and be in coordination with the ASEAN chair. Additionally, the Communiqué strongly condemned the Myanmar Junta’s acts of violence.
Although re-establishing unity and grappling with the Myanmar crisis was the primary issue on the summit’s agenda, another topic of contention given a great deal of attention was the South China Sea issue. This topic has plagued member countries for several years and has caused disputes amongst its members and with China. Thus, the Joint Communiqué specifically mentioned the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. There was also progress towards developing a code of conduct for the South China Sea, including the completion of the second reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text (SDNT). Members also met with Chinese officials at the Post Ministerial Conferences Plus One Session on July 13.
Finally, geopolitics were on full display during the summit. Before Secretary Antony Blinken traveled to Jakarta, Daniel Kirtnebirk, U.S. Assistant for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, spoke to the media underscoring the importance of the trip. The State Department also released a fact sheet highlighting the U.S.-ASEAN relationship.
While at the summit, Secretary Blinken met with President Widodo of Indonesia to engage in a U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue, specifically on topics relating to economic cooperation, collaborating on regional issues, the climate crisis, and more. He also addressed other substantial areas of concern, such as the Myanmar crisis, North Korea’s ballistic missile program, and aggressive Chinese action in the South and East China Seas.
Significantly, Secretary Blinken met with China’s foreign policy chief Wang Yi. Wang stressed that the two countries should increase communication on security and diplomacy. Placing the lack of adequate communication on the U.S., he stated, “The U.S. needs to take a rational and pragmatic approach, work with China in the same direction … expand the communication channel in diplomatic and security fields, make their communication more effective, and promote smooth people-to-people exchanges.” Fortunately, both sides concurred that continuing talks were productive and agreed to continue conversions.
In China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Wang Wenbin’s Friday briefing, he stressed the closeness of China and ASEAN regarding geography, history, and contemporary relations. He also stated that this would be the first year the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Cooperation Work Plan would be implemented, and emphasized Wang’s three-point proposal for increasing APT cooperation. Wang Yi also pushed for the full implementation of RCEP.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also garnered significant attention with his speech on July 13. He appealed to member countries to resume trade with Russia and to use national currencies instead of the dollar. Lavrov stated that Russia desired to increase bilateral trade with Indonesia and the Eurasian Economic Union. He also offered to send more halal-certified meat and oil to Indonesia. Moreover, he mentioned the concept of the Greater Eurasian Partnership developed by Putin in 2016 as a main driving force to increase cooperation.
In response to Foreign Minister Lavrov’s presence at the summon, Secretary Blinken stated, “his interventions and engagements were not constructive or productive on any issue. He focused – unlike the United States and unlike many other countries – on a totally negative presentation and agenda in which he effectively ascribed every problem in the world to the United States.”
The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit provides member states a platform to address pressing concerns and foster unity. Recently, these summits have also served to assert ASEAN’s centrality as a regional actor. However, this summit took on new importance as geopolitical tensions have increased throughout the region and the world. The venue became an opportunity for regional rivals to discuss areas of concern and future dialogue. However, it also allowed these actors to appeal to further their relations with ASEAN and its member states. As tensions in the region continue, these summits will take on greater importance; and China, Russia, the U.S., and others will look for new ways to deepen relations with the multilateral organization and its members. This is evident in Secretary Blinken’s mention of the ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in his remarks. The leaders’ summit scheduled for September presents the next significant opportunity for further engagement and collaboration.