Thomas Daniel was quoted in Nikkei Asia 11 May 2023.

Indonesia’s Jokowi laments ‘no significant progress’ on Myanmar crisis

by Norman Goh, Nikkei staff writer

LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations concluded its three-day summit on Thursday, calling on all parties to exercise self-restraint in the disputed South China Sea, while bloc chair and Indonesian President Joko Widodo lamented the lack of progress on resolving the crisis in Myanmar.

Indonesia’s post-summit chair’s statement called for resolving tensions in the South China Sea — where China’s sweeping claims overlap with those of several ASEAN states — in accordance with international law. It also stressed that countries should avoid conduct that could escalate the situation.

During a closing press briefing, Widodo highlighted various points of agreement between the leaders toward a “stronger and more independent” ASEAN, from strengthening local currency transactions and digital payment connectivity to developing a production ecosystem for electric vehicles. The Indonesian leader also called on his fellow members to focus on protecting migrant workers and victims of human trafficking.

Yet the three days of talks left the bloc no closer to resolving the crisis in its midst.

During an earlier session on Thursday, Widodo acknowledged that there had been “no significant progress” toward implementing the “Five-Point Consensus” — a plan for resolving the Myanmar conflict, drawn up by ASEAN with Myanmar military leader Min Aung Hlaing two years ago.

Later, Widodo told reporters that abuses and violence in Myanmar cannot be tolerated. The military regime, which seized power in February 2021, stands accused of widespread atrocities.

At the same time, Widodo said the Five-Point Consensus gives ASEAN a mandate to engage with all stakeholders, including the military, which was not invited to the summit.

“Inclusivity must be firmly held by ASEAN because ASEAN’s credibility is at stake, and Indonesia is ready to speak with anyone, including the junta and the entire stakeholders in Myanmar, for humanitarian [objectives],” he said. “It is important for me to underline that engagement [with the military regime] doesn’t mean recognition.”

Widodo stressed the need to maintain “ASEAN unity” despite the impasse. “Without unity, it’s very easy for other parties to break ASEAN apart. I’m sure no ASEAN country wants that,” he warned.

Events on the ground in Myanmar this week only underscored the difficulty of doing that, however. On Wednesday, bloc leaders condemned an attack on an ASEAN-led humanitarian assistance team in Myanmar’s Shan state, and stressed that the perpetrators must be held accountable. It remains unclear who was responsible.

Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia, told Nikkei Asia that the group’s handling of the Myanmar issue is a “pathetic failure.”

“ASEAN has not only lost credibility, it has allowed the [Myanmar military] generals to run circles around the organization,” she said.

On other matters, such as economic integration, health cooperation and human rights, Welsh was more positive about what she termed incremental changes in the right direction. The institutionalization of ASEAN as a body separate from governments, she said, had “allowed some space to engage in reforms and dialogues.”

“However, there is still a long way to go to achieve the aspirations,” she added, stressing that ASEAN was being “pulled down” by Myanmar.

The festering South China Sea tensions and uneven post-pandemic economic growth also loom over ASEAN.

The summit gave leaders a chance to discuss the South China Sea and the yearslong process of compiling a Code of Conduct with China, aimed at avoiding conflict.

According to Indonesia’s statement, the leaders welcomed work on the code and emphasized the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the negotiations, while calling for practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of miscalculations.

Beijing claims much of the resource-rich waterway and key trade route, despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its arguments. ASEAN members the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also lay claims to parts of the sea, and are eyeing a multilateral platform for approaching China. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim proposed this during an official visit to the Philippines in March.

On Wednesday, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that ASEAN should uphold international law and the international rules-based system which has “underpinned peace, security, stability and prosperity” in the region. The Philippine leader has adopted a more muscular approach to the South China Sea since he took office last year.

Thomas Daniel, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said that tensions in the body of ocean remain a conundrum for ASEAN. The risks of the regional dispute becoming further entangled in the U.S.-China rivalry — including a possible Taiwan Strait crisis — are higher than ever, he said.

“China’s aggressiveness in enforcing its claims, especially on hydrocarbon operations, are pressuring even normally reserved countries like Malaysia on the viability of its South China Sea policies,” Daniel said, adding that ASEAN looked hamstrung.

Rahul Mishra, director of the Centre for ASEAN Regionalism at the University of Malaya, had a different take, saying Indonesian diplomacy was tackling the issue head-on. “True, the negotiations even within ASEAN are going to be tricky, but it might open up new opportunities for members in dealing with the South China Sea challenge,” Mishra said. He pointed to the ASEAN Coast Guard Forum, established late last year, which he said could help deal with such threats through “sharing of best practices and regular exchange of information.”

In the opening plenary of the summit, Widodo noted that big power rivalries are taking center stage even as the global economy has yet to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. “Will ASEAN remain a spectator?” he said, asking whether the bloc could be an “engine of peace and economic growth.”

Those comments alluded to the potential opportunities before an expanding ASEAN, which is set to welcome East Timor as its 11th member after unanimous approval. But as the curtain closed on the summit in Labuan Bajo, it was clear that Indonesia and ASEAN still had plenty of work cut out for them.

This article first published in Nikkei Asia, 11 May 2023

- Advertisement -