ASEAN summit kicks off amid divisions over Myanmar, China-US rivalry

Jakarta, Sep 5 (EFE).- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Tuesday began their annual summit in Jakarta, which is set to continue until Thursday and is likely to be dominated by the Myanmar crisis, territorial tensions with China and the rift between Beijing and Washington.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated the summit at the convention center in Jakarta by saying that even though questions had been raised about possible divisions in ASEAN and its ability to stay united, its unity remained intact.

He insisted that unity cannot be defined as lack of disagreements, but rather as harmony in diversity, including diversity of opinions.

As Indonesia currently holds the rotating presidency of the bloc, earlier on Tuesday Widodo welcomed his counterparts from other member nations in a ceremony.

ASEAN, established in 1967, includes Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei and Myanmar.

The only leaders missing from the summit are the recently appointed Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin – who has sent his permanent secretary for foreign affairs, Sarun Charoensuwan, in his place – and the head of Myanmar’s military junta, Min Aung Hlaing.

The Myanmar military leadership has been denied ASEAN invitations since they carried out a coup in the country on Feb. 1, 2021.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet is making his international debut in Jakarta after assuming office in August, when he replaced his father Hun Sen following the latter’s surprise resignation after four decades in office.

Timor Leste President Xanana Gusmao will also be present as his county is in the process of becoming a full member, while Bangladeshi President Mohammed Shahabuddin and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown have been invited as special guests.

During the three-day summit, Myanmar is expected to occupy center-stage as the group has been unable to provide a peaceful solution to the conflict raging in the country since the coup, with more than 4,000 people being killed by the security forces since then according to the nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

ASEAN members remain divided over their approach towards Naypyidaw, as Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia condemned the coup through a United Nations resolution in 2021, but Cambodia, Brunei and Laos – set to assume the group’s presidency next year – and Thailand had abstained.

Similarly, the countries do not see eye-to-eye on how to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea between some members – Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia – and China.

For example, Manila has adopted a more aggressive approach since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr assumed office and boosted historic security ties with the United States to protect national interests.

From Wednesday, ASEAN leaders are also set to hold discussions with external leaders invited to the summit, with special focus on US vice-president Kamala Harris and Chinese Premier Li Qiang.

The competition between China and the US to increase their influence in the region will be evident during these meetings, as Beijing is the biggest trade ally of the bloc, while Washington serves as an important security counterbalance.

Widodo cautioned against turning ASEAN into a battleground for “destructive rivalries,” without directly mentioning China and the US.

Other leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will also attend the summit from Wednesday. EFE


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