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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 over the coming week, where divisions between major powers and conflict threaten to overshadow talks.
The first stop is the Cambodian capital where leaders from across the Indo-Pacific will meet alongside a summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders, followed next week by a meeting of the Group of 20 (G20) leaders in Bali and of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok.
The stacked diplomatic line-up will be a test of international appetite for coordination on issues like climate change, global inflation and rising food prices on the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – and the first time that all three events are being held in person since the outbreak began in 2020.
Sharp geopolitical divisions of the type not seen in decades loom over this political calendar, as the war in Ukraine has radically transformed Russia’s relationship with the West, the top two global economies US and China remain locked in intensifying competition, and the rest of the world is pressed to pick a side.
Whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will make any appearance during the stretch of diplomatic dates remains uncertain. Both US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are expected to attend two of the summits in Southeast Asia – a region that has long been ground-zero for influence-jockeying between Beijing and Washington.
Xi is re-emerging on the world stage after years without travel during the pandemic, having secured a norm-breaking third term in power, while Biden heads east fresh from a better-than-expected performance by his party in the US midterm elections. Both would be expected to pitch their country as a stronger partner and more responsible global actor than the other.
The two will meet face-to-face on Monday on the sidelines of the G20, their first in-person encounter since Biden’s election, the White House said on Thursday. Beijing on Friday confirmed Xi’s travel plans to the G20 and APEC summits, and said he would hold bilateral meetings with Biden and several other leaders.
Talks between the two could help to avert an escalation of tensions between the powers. But for the leaders meeting during the string of summits in coming days, cinching robust agreements on tackling global issues – already a tough bargain at the best of times – will be a challenge.
Even the most regional of the meetings, the ASEAN summit of Southeast Asian leaders – which kicked off in Phnom Penh on Friday and is slated to address strengthening regional stability as well as global challenges – will reflect fractured world politics, experts say.
But unlike the other major meetings, which may be more squarely focused on the fallout from the war in Ukraine, ASEAN leaders are entering the summit and related meetings this weekend under pressure to address a spiraling conflict within their own bloc: as Myanmar remains in turmoil and under military rule nearly two years after a brutal coup ousted the democratically elected government.
Differences between Southeast Asian countries on how to handle that conflict, compounded by their criss-crossing allegiances with great powers – and a reticence from the bloc to appear to take sides between the US and China – will all impact how much the group can agree on and what it can accomplish across the gamut of summits, experts say.
“Normally this season would be very exciting – you have three major world summits in Southeast Asia – Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok.
“But (ASEAN) is very much divided on Russian aggression, on the Myanmar coup crisis, on China’s belligerence in the South China Sea and so on, and this means that ASEAN is in bad shape,” he said.
At a United Nations vote last month, seven of the 10 ASEAN countries, including the Myanmar representative who is not backed by the ruling military, voted to condemn Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine, while Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam abstained.
But ASEAN as a bloc has also taken a step to tighten ties with Kyiv at this week’s events, signing an amity and cooperation treaty with Ukraine in a ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
The bloc aims to use consensus among its states as its strength when it brings larger world players to the table, for example in its adjacent East Asia Summit that brings together 18 Indo-Pacific countries, including Russia, China and the United States, and also meets this weekend.
“If ASEAN cannot get its house in order, if ASEAN cannot rein in a rogue member like the Myanmar military regime, then ASEAN loses its relevance,” Pongsudhirak said. “On the other hand, if ASEAN is united, if it can muster commitment and resolve … it can have a lot of pulling power.”
Conflict and competition in Southeast Asia
Nearly two years since the 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 documented violent attacks by the ruling military junta on civilian infrastructure, including schools, has surged.
Numerous armed rebel groups have emerged against the ruling military junta, while millions of people have resisted its rule through forms of civil disobedience.
The weekend’s summits in Phnom Penh will pull the conflict back into international focus, as Southeast Asian leaders try to find a path forward, after Myanmar’s ruling junta failed to implement a peace plan negotiated in April of last year. The country remains part of ASEAN, despite calls from rights groups for its ejection, but has been barred from sending political-level representatives to key events.
ASEAN foreign ministers held a last-ditch attempt to hash out a strategy late last month, with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who chaired the meeting, stressing in a statement afterwards that the challenges were down to “the complexity and difficulty of Myanmar’s decades-long protracted conflicts, which has been further exacerbated by the current political crisis.”
But observers have low expectations for a tougher line, at least while Cambodia chairs the bloc, and are already looking to next year when Indonesia assumes leadership in 2023.
Addressing the “ongoing crisis” will be a focus for Biden in 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 National Unity Government.
China, on the other hand, has shown support to the ruling military junta and would be unlikely to back tough action, observers say. A months-long inquiry into the situation in Myanmar released by an international team of lawmakers last month accused Russia and China of “supplying both weapons and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime.”
That, too, could have an impact on outcomes this weekend, according to political scientist Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Because of Russian and (Chinese) support for the junta, any efforts toward a solution by ASEAN would require some form of engagement with them, whether this is to get buy-in or even just non-opposition,” Chong said.
The crisis in Myanmar is not the only area where US and China division may loom over the ASEAN summits, even as issues like China’s aggression in the South China Sea – where Beijing asserts territorial claims that conflict with those of several Southeast Asian countries – may be of lesser importance this year.
ASEAN will hold its usual side summits with both the US and China respectively, as well as other countries, and China’s number two leader, the 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 raise concerns about the impact of US-China competition on the region, its trade and supply chains, for example in the wake of a US export ban on semi-conductors to China, according to Chong.
“ASEAN states are going to try and find some way to navigate all this, and will be looking to both Beijing and Washington to see what sort of leeway they can provide,” he said.