ASEAN-9 Summit Includes Plea for Peace in South China Sea

PHNOM PENH — Foreign ministers of nine Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members wrapped up their annual summit Saturday with a plea for peace in the South China Sea, warnings to Myanmar’s junta and plans to bolster COVID-19-injured economies.

Prak Sokhonn, the Cambodian foreign minister and host of this year’s summit, was blunt in his assessment of the weeklong meetings, describing the sessions as frank, candid, lively and heated.

“This is a critical time of great uncertainties for the region and the world,” he told journalists at a Saturday morning news conference, when he lamented, “It was not easy … even Superman cannot solve Myanmar’s problems.”

However, ASEAN members did overcome some of their differences and, backed by most dialogue partners including the U.S., Japan and Australia, issued a 29-page communique covering a broad range of issues that put the military dictatorship in Myanmar on notice.

It said recent developments in the conflict-ridden country, including the execution of four opposition activists shortly before the summit began and an inability of the military to make progress on a five-point peace plan, were extensively discussed.

“We were deeply disappointed by the limited progress in and lack of commitment of the Naypyidaw authorities to the timely and complete implementation of the Five-Point Consensus,” the communique said, adding that the “next steps” were being considered.

ASEAN had been widely criticized for its soft response to last year’s coup in Myanmar and a split emerged, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei forming a troika demanding a harsher response, while Thailand, Cambodia and Laos were accused of aiding the junta.

But Cambodia’s foreign minister said Myanmar’s execution of four democracy activists last month had upset all ASEAN leaders and indicated a significant shift in attitudes, saying the military leadership, banned from attending ASEAN summits, had failed to build any trust within the bloc.

“And without this trust, the fighting will continue and the political process will never start because no one will come if they fear for their life, so building trust is the most important,” he said.

Analysts said the “next steps” would be decided over the next three months and any further moves, which could include sanctions, recognition of Myanmar’s opposition and total isolation of the junta, would be announced at the ASEAN leaders summit scheduled for November.

China- Taiwan tensions

Tensions in the South China Sea, another divisive issue among ASEAN’s 10 member nations, spilled over as Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, visited Taiwan. China responded by declaring a seventh live-fire zone on Taiwan’s east flank, deploying jets and firing rockets.

In Phnom Penh, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi abandoned slated talks with his Japanese counterpart, Yoshimasa Hayashi, after Tokyo signed on to a G-7 statement calling on Beijing to resolve tensions around the Taiwan Strait in a peaceful manner.

Yi also walked out of a gala dinner, which a Chinese government spokesman said was due to his tight schedule and China’s COVID-19 protocols. But sources said Yi, who waved as he entered, was irritated at the sight of Hayashi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and immediately left.

In his opening remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Yi to “take no notice of the problems and crises created by Washington and hope for the best.”

Blinken told a news conference the Chinese response to Pelosi was excessive and U.S. aircraft carriers remain on standby.

“The world will see us continue to support the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and advance our shared goals throughout the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “That is what the region expects of us – to be steady and responsible.”

On the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting, Blinken met with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi.

The three expressed their commitment to deepening their trilateral partnership to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific region, the three nations said in a statement.

They also reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and appreciated ASEAN’s statement about the importance of deescalating tension in the Taiwan Strait.

The secretary and the foreign ministers expressed their concern about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) recent actions, including the use of large-scale military exercises. They condemned the PRC’s launch of ballistic missiles, the statement said.

They urged the PRC to immediately cease the military exercises, adding that there is no change in the respective one China policies, where applicable, and the basic positions on Taiwan from Australia, Japan, or the United States.

Cambodia has been sharply criticized for acting as a Chinese proxy within ASEAN in return for aid and investment. When it last chaired ASEAN in 2012, no communique was issued for the first time in the group’s history, after it was scuttled by Phnom Penh, creating a furor.

Not so this year, although China was not mentioned by name in this week’s communique.

However, in a clear reference to Beijing, the communique said the South China Sea was discussed and some ministers expressed concern over “land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment.”

It added the issues had “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.”

The communique also noted the need to recognize the United Nations Convention on the Law and Sea (UNCLOS), another sore point with China.

UNCLOS’s “integrity needs to be maintained,” it said, adding, “the convention sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.”

In the lead up to the summit, the Philippines, under recently elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr., made it clear it would reassert the country’s maritime claims under a 2016 landmark ruling in The Hague that rejected most of Beijing’s claims over reefs and atolls under UNCLOS.

Beijing rejected the court’s decision.

ASEAN summits are often derided as little more than a talkfest, but this year’s earned praise for the bloc’s desire to play a centrist role in resolving disputes in the South China Sea and for a shift in attitudes on Myanmar.

“They’re extremely concerned about this and you have almost unprecedented criticism of a fellow ASEAN member,” said Bart Edes, a professor of practice at McGill University in Montreal, in regard to Myanmar.

“You’ve heard this from Cambodia, you’ve heard this from Malaysia and I think that ASEAN countries are sensing the weakness behind the regime. They are facing an armed opposition from many different corners within the country. Their status quo can not last.”

Source: Voice of America