As major powers meet in Asia, the rest of the world is pressed to pick a side

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World leaders are converging in Phnom Penh this weekend for the first in a series of international summits in Southeast Asia in the coming week, where divisions between major powers and conflicts threaten to overshadow talks.

The first stop is the Cambodian capital, where leaders from across the Indo-Pacific will meet with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit, followed by the G20 leaders’ meeting in Bali next week. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bangkok.

The stacked diplomatic team is a test of international appetite for coordination on issues such as climate change, global inflation and rising food prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. – and it will be the first time since the start of the outbreak in 2020 that all three events will be held in person.

The sharpest geopolitical divisions not seen in decades have emerged on this political calendar as the war in Ukraine has radically transformed Russia’s relationship with the West, with the top two global economies, the US and China, locked in fierce competition and the rest of the world being pressured to choose a side.

It remains uncertain whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will appear during the extension of diplomatic dates. US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are both expected to attend two summits in Southeast Asia – long ground-zero for influence-jockeying between Beijing and Washington.

Xi is re-emerging on the world stage after years without travel during the pandemic, securing a third term in office, while Biden has been propelled east by his party’s better-than-expected showing in the US midterm elections. Both are expected to pitch their country as a stronger partner and more responsible global actor than others.

The two will meet on Monday during the G20, the White House said Thursday, in what will be their first face-to-face meeting since Biden’s election. Beijing has not yet confirmed Xi’s travel plans.

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Dialogue between the two helps avoid tensions between powers. But for leaders meeting during a series of summits in the coming days, forging firm agreements to tackle global issues – already a hard bargain in the best of times – will be a challenge.

The most regional of the meetings, the ASEAN Summit of Southeast Asian Leaders – which opened Friday in Phnom Penh and is slated to address global challenges while strengthening regional stability – reflects fractured world politics, experts say.

But unlike other major meetings of the week, which may focus more on the fallout from the war in Ukraine, ASEAN leaders are entering this weekend’s summit and related meetings under pressure to resolve the spiraling conflict within their own group: Myanmar is in turmoil and under military rule nearly two years after a brutal coup ousted a democratically elected government.

Differences among Southeast Asian countries over how to manage that conflict, their criss-crossing loyalties with great powers — and reluctance from a bloc that appears to take sides between the U.S. and China — all affect how much the group can agree on and what it can achieve in a range of summits, experts say.

Police officers in Phnom Penh will close roads to traffic around the venue of the ASEAN summit, which will meet from November 10.

“Usually this season is very exciting – you have three major world summits in Southeast Asia – Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at the Faculty of Political Science at Chulongkorn University in Bangkok.

“But (ASEAN) is more divided over Russian aggression, the Myanmar insurgency crisis, China’s war in the South China Sea and so on, and that means ASEAN is in a bad position,” he said.

In a United Nations vote last month, seven of 10 ASEAN countries, including a representative from 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.

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But ASEAN as a bloc took a step towards tightening ties with Kyiv in events this week, Signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with Ukraine at a ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Phnom Penh on Thursday.

It aims to use consensus among its states as its strength while bringing big world players to the table, such as its adjacent East Asia Summit, which brings together 18 Indo-Pacific countries, including Russia, China and the United States. See you this weekend.

“If ASEAN cannot put its house in order, if ASEAN cannot control rogue members like the Myanmar military regime, ASEAN will lose its relevance,” Pongsudhirak said. “On the other hand, if ASEAN is, if it can come together and resolve the commitment… it will have a lot of pulling power.”

Nearly two years after a military coup crushed Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, rights groups and observers say freedoms and rights in the country have deteriorated sharply; State executions have returned and the number of recorded violent attacks by the ruling military regime on civilian infrastructure, including schools, has increased.

Several armed rebel groups have emerged against the ruling military regime, while millions have resisted its rule through forms of civil disobedience.

The weekend summits in Phnom Penh will draw the conflict back into the international spotlight as Southeast Asian leaders try to find a way forward after Myanmar’s ruling junta 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 is barred from sending political-level representatives to major events.

Protesters stand guard and set up makeshift barricades to block a road during a protest against a military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, March 2021.

Asean foreign ministers made a last-ditch effort to hammer out a strategy late last month, with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokon, who chaired the meeting, later stressing in a statement that the challenges “relate to Myanmar’s decades of complexity and hardship—prolonged conflicts, further exacerbated by the current political crisis.”

But observers have low expectations for a hard line, at least with Cambodia chairing the bloc and already looking ahead to Indonesia taking over leadership in 2023.

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Addressing the “ongoing crisis” will focus on Biden’s talks with Southeast Asian leaders as he attends ASEAN summits over the weekend, the White House said on Tuesday. Since the coup, the Biden administration has launched targeted sanctions against the military regime and held meetings with the opposition Government of National Unity.

China, on the other hand, has shown support for the ruling military junta and is unlikely to support tougher action, observers say. A month-long inquiry released last month by a team of international lawmakers into the situation in Myanmar accused Russia and China of “supplying both arms and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime”.

That, too, could affect the results this weekend, said political scientist Chong Jae Ian, associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

“Because of support for the Russian and (Chinese) junta, any efforts towards a solution by ASEAN will require some form of engagement with them, even if it is to gain buy-in or opposition,” Chong said.

The crisis in Myanmar is not the only area where the US and China are divided over ASEAN summits, as issues such as China’s aggression in the South China Sea – Beijing could come into conflict with several Southeast Asian countries asserting territorial claims. Less important this year.

ASEAN holds its regular summits with the US and China and other countries, respectively, and China’s second leader, economy-focused Premier Li Keqiang, arrived earlier this week as Xi’s representative.

As Southeast Asian leaders seek to shore up their economic stability, they are likely to be concerned about the impact of US-China competition on the region, its trade and supply chains, such as carriers to China in the wake of semi-overwhelming US export bans, according to Chong.

“ASEAN states are going to try to find some way to navigate all of this and see what kind of opportunity they can provide to both Beijing and Washington,” he said.


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