The heads of Southeast Asian governments held talks on Saturday with visiting global leaders, including US President Joe Biden.
Cambodia is hosting this year’s annual gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and affiliated events such as the East Asian Summit.
The latter involves a wider group of leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
All sorts of issues are being discussed but one right at the top is the “nightmare” in Myanmar, a protracted civil war flaring on several fronts that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged ASEAN heads and visiting powerbrokers to try to bring to an end.
Speaking at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Saturday, the UN chief said: “The situation in Myanmar is an unending nightmare for the people of the country and a threat to peace and security across the region. Indiscriminate attacks on civilians are horrendous and heartbreaking.
“I urge the authorities in Myanmar to listen to their people, release political prisoners, and get democratic transition back on track immediately. That is the only way to stability and peace,” he said, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
Guterres would like ASEAN to find a unified strategy toward Myanmar, centered on the needs and aspirations at the country’s people.
But the regional body has had little success to date given the Myanmar army chief’s reluctance to undertake any serious moves to ease the conflict.
Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was not invited to the summit because he has ignored ASEAN pleas to end the civil war and undertaken highly provocative moves such as executing political prisoners.
ASEAN leaders issued a “warning” to Myanmar on Friday to make measurable progress on a peace plan or risk being barred from the bloc’s meetings, as social and political chaos escalates in the country.
Pyongyang’s Missiles, China-US Rivalry
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Yoon wants help from China and Japan to get North Korea to curb its missiles launches, while smaller nations are trying to navigate the growing rivalry between China and Western powers.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met ASEAN leaders on Friday.
US President Joe Biden will focus on the Indo-Pacific region and talk about US commitment to a rules-based international order in the South China Sea in his discussions, senior administration officials said earlier this week.
Some analysts played down expectations of any dramatic developments from Biden’s presence at the ASEAN meetings, but noted it provided more evidence of how the United States was getting back to “normal diplomacy”.
“President Trump didn’t attend a single East Asian Summit during four years in office,” said Greg Poling, head of the Southeast Asia programme at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One outcome of the trip would be the elevation of the US-ASEAN partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, he noted.
“That doesn’t mean anything concrete, but symbolically it puts the US at the same level as China,” Poling said.
China Keen to Upgrade Regional Trade Deal
China, on the other hand, is expected to start talks with ASEAN nations about an upgrade to their free-trade agreement to bolster the country’s manufacturing supply chains as rivalry with the US intensifies, a report by the South China Morning Post said.
“Officials in Beijing have told state-run media they will approach ASEAN leaders this week about speeding up negotiations for what they call the Asean-China Free Trade Area “version 3.0”, the report said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is in Phnom Penh and will be leading that push, which some experts suggested could simply be a move to delay Washington’s push for an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
War in Ukraine Also on Agenda
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will also attend some meetings, while Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is also in Cambodia after signing a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, as Kyiv seeks to strengthen ties with the bloc.
Kuleba said he held direct talks with several leaders of ASEAN countries, during which he urged them to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, warning that staying neutral was not in their interests.
He said he also urged them to prevent Russia from holding up the movement of Ukrainian agricultural products under a Black Sea grain deal, which could expire on November 19.
The United Nations says 10 million tonnes of grain and other foods have been exported from Ukraine under the arrangement made in July, but warns the war will leave millions more hungry.
“I call on all ASEAN members to take every method possible to stop Russia from playing hunger games with the world,” Kuleba said at a news conference.
Officials expect a series of regional summits over the next seven days to be difficult, with discussions also expected to include the war in Ukraine, climate and regional tensions over the South China Sea.
G20 leaders are meeting in Bali next week – China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to meet Biden on Monday – and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum will take place in Bangkok shortly after that.
- Jim Pollard, with Reuters