Southeast Asian Bloc’s Raison d’Etre Called into Question

As China’s influence grows ever stronger, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are becoming increasingly divided, and the bloc is failing in its role to stabilize the region. If this situation continues, serious questions could be raised regarding the organization’s raison d’etre.

ASEAN foreign ministers recently held a meeting in Indonesia. Formulating a response to the situation in member-state Myanmar was high on the agenda.

Myanmar’s military has ignored international calls to cease violence, even after it toppled the democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in a 2021 coup. The military crackdown has left more than 3,700 people dead.

ASEAN’s basic tenets are to uphold the rule of law and respect human rights, but it also embraces the principles of noninterference in internal affairs and unanimity. Due to this stance, the bloc has been unable to exert pressure on Myanmar’s military powers.

A joint statement issued after the foreign ministers’ meeting strongly condemned air strikes, artillery shelling and other acts of violence in Myanmar but failed to propose effective countermeasures.

Shortly before the meeting, the foreign minister of Thailand, which has strong military ties with Myanmar, visited the country and met with Suu Kyi, who continues to be detained in that nation. The minister said Suu Kyi was in good health.

The encounter marked the first time Suu Kyi had met a foreign government official since the coup. Following criticism for refusing to allow an ASEAN envoy to meet with her, the Myanmar military may have been keen to avoid isolation by treating Thailand favorably.

Malaysia and other ASEAN member states that have taken a hard-line stance against Myanmar expressed displeasure with Thailand. Bangkok’s actions could be viewed as having contributed to divisions within ASEAN.

On the other hand, China, which supports Myanmar’s junta with economic aid, has praised Thailand’s independent diplomatic efforts. This contrasts with the United States’ approach, in which it has called for unity in increasing pressure on Myanmar at talks with ASEAN foreign ministers.

Beijing likely believes ASEAN’s failure to take concerted steps could help increase China’s influence in the region and keep the United States in check.

ASEAN has failed to address issues related to the South China Sea — where China, Vietnam and other countries claim territorial rights — thus enabling Beijing to set up military outposts.

Despite striving for years to establish rules aimed at preventing disputes, China and ASEAN have yet to reach an agreement. The latest foreign ministers’ meeting also lacked substantive progress.

If China were to exploit ASEAN’s disarray and destabilize the region, it would have a negative impact on Japan. The Japanese government should strengthen its involvement in ASEAN matters — including tackling the situation in Myanmar — and urge a united response.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2023)