July 28, 2022
JAKARTA – Next week, nine foreign ministers of the 10-member ASEAN will gather in Phnom Penh to discuss their own agenda, to host separate meetings with their 10 dialogue partners, and most importantly to chair the high-profile ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which will feature big names like the United States, China and Russia.
After more than two years of COVID-19 restrictions, ASEAN foreign ministers and their dialogue partners will eventually regroup in person.
On Tuesday, ASEAN jointly condemned the execution of four pro-democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta under Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. He is also held responsible for the detention and killings of thousands of people who have resisted his coup against the democratically elected government since February last year.
More than just deploring the savagery, the ASEAN foreign ministers should take bolder measures to ensure the junta will not act as a “thorn in the flesh” of the regional bloc, whose international credibility is in jeopardy for failure to put an end to the junta’s atrocities against the Myanmar people. The executions show Hlaing’s defiance of his own promise to ASEAN to opt for peaceful measures.
ASEAN should now make sure that Myanmar will not be represented in the Phnom Penh meetings. Some Indonesian officials have expressed concerns that this year’s ASEAN chair Cambodia may try to let some junta representatives attend the meetings. Back in 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen removed a paragraph in the leaders’ joint communique that explicitly expressed their concern about the situation in the South China Sea.
For one week until Aug. 6, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn will host his guests at the Sokha Hotel. This will be the second-last ASEAN meeting in Cambodia, before Hun Sen hosts the summit of the ASEAN leaders and the East Asian Summit in October. At the summit, Hun Sen will hand over the ASEAN chairmanship to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
The rotary chair of ASEAN does not have the privilege of dictating the regional grouping’s policy as it pleases. But Hun Sen has tried in vain to break the rules by slowing down ASEAN’s actions against the Myanmar junta.
Most recently Hun Sen supported ASEAN’s tough stance against the junta, only after he had found out the junta refused to accept even the least political compromise. Personally, I believe Hun Sen will show statesmanship in the interests of ASEAN, but when he allows the junta representative to come to the summit, many guests such as the US, Australia and Japan are likely boycott it.
As long as ASEAN remains soft against Hlaing, the group will only receive criticism, if not mockery, from its guests. ASEAN did express its abhorrence of the Myanmar general in their joint statement, but they should go further by suspending Myanmar’s ASEAN membership indefinitely.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi seems to fully realize the complexity of the ARF, which aims to agree on confidence-building measures among its participants. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rising tension in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and North Korea’s nuclear threats will top the incoming ARF agenda.
Retno will also carry an important message from President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to convince other ASEAN members to accept Timor Leste as a fully fledged member of the group for the benefit of the bloc.
Walk-outs, open arguments and attempts to pressure ASEAN to take sides with one of the conflicting parties may mark next week’s multilateral forum. But ASEAN should not let its guests dictate the course of the discussions, and its foreign ministers should stand up to tell them, “Be our guest, and please follow our rules”.
In this regard, Retno should make sure all the ASEAN guests, despite their economic or military might, abide by the rules and protocols set by ASEAN.
ASEAN should set the agenda that everybody strictly follows.
First, ASEAN will reemphasize its concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the regional grouping’s centrality in determining its own direction. All countries so far have shown support for ASEAN’s standpoint, but their interpretations about ASEAN centrality vary. It is clear that the US and its allies, including NATO, are using the Indo-Pacific framework to contain China by increasing their military presence.
Second, ASEAN should continue pushing China to reach a binding compromise on the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. China claims almost the whole maritime territory, some of which overlaps with the claims of ASEAN member states. China is too strong for ASEAN, but it somehow knows it cannot fight against the whole world.
After the 55th foreign ministers’ meeting, the ASEAN ministers will organize the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) with their dialogue partners from Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US.
ASEAN will also organize its 23rd meeting with its counterparts from Japan, China and South Korea. The three countries are the first dialogue partners for the regional trade bloc.
The peak of the Phnom Penh meeting will be the ARF, which was established in 1994. Its participants comprise the 10 members of ASEAN, the 10 dialogue partners, plus Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, South Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and North Korea.
This year the forum will be preoccupied by issues of Indo-Pacific development, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the South China Sea. North Korea, if it decides to attend, will use this opportunity to attack the US and demonstrate the latest development of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program.
Although the ARF does not produce binding agreements, it remains one of the most important dialogue forums among the countries of the Indo-Pacific.
Among the strategic topics of discussion, first and foremost ASEAN must be able to prove its intolerance of the ruthless behavior of Gen. Hlaing and his fellow generals.