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World leaders converge in Phnom Penh this weekend for the first in a series of international summits in Southeast Asia over the coming week, where great power divisions and conflict threaten to overshadow the talks.
The first stop is the Cambodian capital where leaders from across the Indo-Pacific will meet alongside an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit, followed next week by a meeting of the leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok.
The stacked diplomatic list will be a test of the international appetite for coordination on issues including climate change, global inflation and rising food prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. and economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic — and the first time all three events have taken place in person since the outbreak began in 2020.
Sharp geopolitical divisions of the kind not seen in decades loom over this political calendar, as the war in Ukraine has radically transformed Russia’s relationship with the West, the world’s two major economies, the United States and the China, remain locked in escalating competition, and the rest of the world is in a rush to choose a side.
Whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will make an appearance during the series of diplomatic meetings remains unclear. US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are expected to attend two of the summits in Southeast Asia – a region that has long been ground zero for influence maneuvers between Beijing and Washington.
Xi is resurfacing on the world stage after years without traveling during the pandemic, having secured a third term in office, while Biden heads east after his party’s better-than-expected showing in the US mid-term elections mandate. Both would be expected to present their country as a stronger partner and a more responsible global player than the other.
The two men will meet face to face Monday on the sidelines of the G20, their first face-to-face meeting since Biden’s election, the White House announced Thursday. Beijing on Friday confirmed Xi’s travel plans to the G20 and APEC summits, and said it would hold bilateral meetings with Biden and several other leaders.
Talks between the two could help avoid an escalation of tensions between the powers. But for the leaders who will gather at the series of summits over the next few days, striking solid agreements on solving global problems – already a difficult bargain at the best of times – will be a challenge.
Even the most regional of meetings, the ASEAN Summit of Southeast Asian Leaders – which kicked off Friday in Phnom Penh and is expected to address strengthening regional stability as well as global challenges – will reflect the fractured global politics , according to experts.
But unlike other major meetings this week, which might be more directly focused on the fallout from the war in Ukraine, ASEAN leaders enter the summit and related meetings this weekend under pressure to settle a conflict in spiral within their own block: as Myanmar remains in turmoil and under military rule nearly two years after a brutal coup toppled the democratically elected government.
Differences between Southeast Asian countries over how to handle this conflict, compounded by their intersecting allegiances with major powers – and the bloc’s reluctance to appear to take sides between the United States and China – will all have an impact on the extent to which the group can get along. and what it can accomplish across the full range of peaks, experts say.
“Normally this season would be very exciting – you have three major world summits in Southeast Asia – Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Faculty’s Institute of Security and International Studies. in political science from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“But (ASEAN) is very divided on Russian aggression, on the Myanmar coup crisis, on China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, etc., which means that ASEAN is in bad shape,” he said.
In a vote at the United Nations last month, seven of the 10 ASEAN countries, including the representative of Myanmar which is not backed by the ruling military, voted to condemn Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine, while Thailand, Laos and Vietnam abstained.
But ASEAN as a bloc also took a step to tighten ties with Kyiv during this week’s events, signature of a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Ukraine at a ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
The bloc aims to use consensus among its states as its strength when bringing bigger global players to the table, for example in its adjacent East Asia summit which brings together 18 Indo-Pacific countries. , including Russia, China and the United States, and also meets this weekend.
“If ASEAN cannot get its house in order, if ASEAN cannot contain a rogue member like the military regime in Myanmar, then ASEAN loses its relevance,” Pongsudhirak said. “On the other hand, if ASEAN is united, if it can muster the commitment and the resolve…it can have a lot of pulling power.”
Nearly two years after the military coup crushed Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, rights groups and observers say freedoms and rights in the country have deteriorated sharply; state executions resumed and the number of violent attacks documented by the ruling military junta against civilian infrastructure, including schools, increased.
Numerous armed rebel groups emerged against the ruling military junta, while millions of people resisted its rule through forms of civil disobedience.
Weekend summits in Phnom Penh will bring the conflict back to the forefront of the international stage, as Southeast Asian leaders try to find a way forward, after Myanmar’s ruling junta failed to failed to implement a peace plan negotiated in April last year. The country remains part of ASEAN, despite calls from rights groups for its expulsion, but has been banned from sending political-level representatives to key events.
ASEAN foreign ministers made a last-ditch attempt to strategize late last month, with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who chaired the meeting, noting in a later statement that the challenges were due to “the complexity and difficulty of Myanmar’s decades-long conflict, which has been further exacerbated by the current political crisis.
But observers have little expectation for a harder line, at least as long as Cambodia chairs the bloc, and are already eyeing next year when Indonesia assumes leadership in 2023.
Tackling the “ongoing crisis” will be a focus of Biden’s talks with Southeast Asian leaders as he attends ASEAN summits this weekend, the White House said Tuesday. Since the coup, the Biden administration has launched targeted sanctions against the military regime and is holding meetings with the opposition national unity government.
China, on the other hand, has shown support for the ruling military junta and is unlikely to support tough action, observers say. A months-long investigation into the situation in Myanmar released by an international team of lawmakers last month accused Russia and China of “providing both arms and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime”.
That too could impact the results this weekend, according to political scientist Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Because of Russian and (Chinese) support for the junta, any effort towards an ASEAN solution would require some form of engagement with them, whether to gain membership or even just non-opposition,” he said. Chong said.
The Myanmar crisis isn’t the only area where the divide between the United States and China could loom over ASEAN summits, even though issues like China’s aggression in the South China Sea – where Beijing asserts territorial claims that conflict with those of several Southeast Asian countries – may be of lesser importance this year.
ASEAN will hold its usual parallel summits with the United States and China respectively, as well as other countries, and China’s number two, economy-focused Premier Li Keqiang, arrived earlier this week as Xi’s representative.
As Southeast Asian leaders seek to consolidate economic stability, they are likely to raise concerns about the impact of US-China competition on the region, its trade and supply chains, for example following a US ban on the export of semi-finished products. drivers in China, according to Chong.
“ASEAN states will try to find a way to navigate all of this, and will look to Beijing and Washington to see what sort of leeway they can offer,” he said.