March 31, 2022
JAKARTA – Tuesday could have been the day we witnessed United States President Joe Biden host his ASEAN counterparts and announce closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. We should be content, however, that the meeting was “postponed” for many reasons, particularly because this gives all sides time for pause and reflection.
For one, it would have been a logistical nightmare and a health risk for Southeast Asian leaders to travel to the US, given that the COVID-19 situation in each ASEAN country is nuanced.
For another, Washington seems to be preoccupied with its Russia policy over its unprompted invasion of Ukraine last month, almost to the point that observers are convinced it is still 1962 and ASEAN does not exist yet.
There is little doubt that a joint statement on Ukraine would have been issued if a US-ASEAN Summit were staged at this point in time, even if the exact wording might be less obvious than what anyone thinks.
Few from the region would be eager to take a side after watching the US seek leverage in the regional rivalry with fellow superpower China, when it clearly showed a willingness to sidestep ASEAN in forming the AUKUS alliance and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the latter involving ASEAN partners Australia, India and Japan.
In the end, Southeast Asia is more interested in keeping its economic gear turning and protecting its people from the pandemic and the specter of open conflict.
The West’s preoccupation with Ukraine has also largely overshadowed Southeast Asia’s own humanitarian tragedy that is still unfolding in Myanmar, more than a year after the junta forcibly ousted the democratically elected civilian government.
More than 1,700 people have been killed and almost 13,000 others arrested since the February 2021 coup, according to one human rights group.
In light of recent developments, it is difficult to believe the junta will agree to anything but an election sometime next year, albeit one that is likely to be rigged.
On Sunday, the Myanmar junta swore to wipe out the anti-coup opposition it labeled “terrorists”, flying in the face of recent ASEAN efforts at conflict resolution.
Given this context, the Ukraine crisis could set a dangerous precedent for aspiring dictators or illicit military regimes like the one in Myanmar, considering that Washington and its allies still don’t seem to have a solution for aggressors like Russia.
Other players may yet seek to exploit this perceived waning of US influence in the region and on the global stage.
While some may credit ASEAN chair Cambodia for advancing the regional agenda against the backdrop of rising geopolitical competition, any political capital it may gain is likely to be spent by its autocratic leader Hun Sen on his 2023 reelection bid.
The same may as well apply to the son of a former dictator in the Philippines this year, the current coup leader in Thailand next year, and even in Indonesia, where the political elite is trying to breath life into potentially extending the term of President Joko Widodo beyond 2024.
Yes, the war in Ukraine is indeed on a larger scale than what is happening in Myanmar. But it does seem as though the West is more interested in dealing a crippling blow to Russia than ending antidemocratic violence on principle.
So the next time the US thinks about hosting ASEAN leaders, it would do well to keep the region’s interests in mind and lead by example.