ASEAN, G20 summits: As US and China meet, rest of world pressured to pick sides

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Hong Kong

World leaders are converging on Phnom Penh this weekend for the first of a series of international summits in Southeast Asia next week, where major power divisions and conflict threaten to overshadow the talks.

The first stop is the Cambodian capital, where leaders from across the Indo-Pacific will gather alongside an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit, followed next week by a meeting of the leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) in Bali and of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bangkok.

The stacked diplomatic formation will be a test of the 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 pandemic. the Covid-19. – and the first time all three events have been held in person since the outbreak began in 2020.

Sharp geopolitical divisions of a kind not seen in decades are looming over this political calendar, as the Ukraine war has radically transformed Russia’s relationship with the West, the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, continue locked in more intense competition and the rest of the world. is pressed to choose a side.

It is not yet known whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will make any appearances during the diplomatic dates. 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 the game of influence between Beijing and Washington.

Xi re-emerges on the world stage after years without travel during the pandemic, having secured a rule-breaking third term in power, while Biden heads east after a performance better than expected from his party in the US midterm elections. Both are expected to present their country as a stronger partner and a more responsible global player than the other.

The two will meet face-to-face on Monday on the sidelines of the G20, their first in-person meeting since Biden’s election, the White House said Thursday. Beijing confirmed Xi’s travel plans to the G20 and APEC summits on Friday and said he would hold bilateral meetings with Biden and several other leaders.

Talks between the two could help prevent an escalation of tensions between the powers. But for the leaders gathered during the series of summits over the next few days, securing strong agreements to address global issues, already a difficult business at the best of times, will be a challenge.

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

Even the most regional of the meetings, the ASEAN Southeast Asian Leaders’ Summit, which began Friday in Phnom Penh and is scheduled to address strengthening regional stability and global challenges, will reflect a fractured world politics, according to experts.

But unlike other major meetings, which may be more focused on the fallout from the war in Ukraine, ASEAN leaders enter the summit and related meetings this weekend under pressure to address a spiraling conflict within from his own blog: as Myanmar remains in turmoil and under military rule nearly two years after a brutal coup toppled the democratically elected government.

Differences among Southeast Asian countries over how to manage this conflict, compounded by their intersecting loyalties with major powers, and the bloc’s reluctance to appear to take sides between the US and China, will affect how far the group can agree and what it can achieve across the range 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 for Security and International Studies in the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

“But (ASEAN) is very divided over Russian aggression, over the Myanmar coup crisis, over China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, etc., and that means the ASEAN is in bad shape,” he said.

In a UN vote last month, seven of the 10 ASEAN countries, including the representative of Myanmar which does not have the support of the ruling military, voted to condemn the annexation of four regions from Ukraine by Russia, while Thailand, Laos and Vietnam abstained.

But ASEAN as a bloc has also moved to tighten ties with Kyiv in events this week. signing a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Ukraine at a ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday in Phnom Penh.

The bloc aims to use consensus among its states as its strength when bringing larger global players to the table, for example at its adjacent East Asia summit that brings together 18 Indo-Pacific countries, including Russia , China and the United States, and also met this weekend.

“If ASEAN cannot put its house in order, if ASEAN cannot control a rogue member like Myanmar’s military regime, then ASEAN loses its relevance,” Pongsudhirak said. “On the other hand, if ASEAN is united, if it can muster the commitment and resolve … it can have a lot of pulling power.”

Nearly two years since 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 documented violent attacks by the ruling military junta against civilian infrastructure, including schools, has increased.

Numerous armed rebel groups have emerged against the ruling military junta, while millions have resisted their rule through forms of civil disobedience.

Weekend summits in Phnom Penh will return the conflict to 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 from last year The country remains part of ASEAN, despite calls from rights groups for its expulsion, but has been banned from sending political-level representatives to key events.

Protesters set up and secure makeshift barricades to block the road during the anti-military coup demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, March 2021.

ASEAN foreign ministers made a last-ditch attempt to craft a strategy late last month, with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn chairing the meeting, stressing in a later statement that the challenges are due to the “complexity and difficulty of Myanmar’s decades…long-running conflicts, which have been further exacerbated by the current political crisis.”

But observers have low expectations of a tougher line, at least while Cambodia chairs the bloc, and are already looking ahead to next year when Indonesia takes over the leadership in 2023.

Addressing the “ongoing crisis” will be Biden’s focus in talks with Southeast Asian leaders as he attends ASEAN summits over the weekend, the White House said 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 back tough action, observers say. A months-long investigation into the situation in Myanmar released by an international team of lawmakers last month accused Russia and China of “providing weapons and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime.”

That could also have an impact on this weekend’s results, according to political scientist Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

“Because of Russian and (Chinese) support for the board, any effort towards a solution by ASEAN would require some kind of compromise with them, either to get their acceptance or even non-opposition,” Chong said.

The Myanmar crisis is not the only area where the US-China divide may loom over ASEAN summits, even as issues such as China’s aggression in the South China Sea – where Beijing asserts territorial claims that conflict with those of several Southeast Asian countries. less important this year.

ASEAN will hold its regular side summits with the US and China respectively, as well as other countries, and China’s number two leader, economy-focused Premier Li Keqiang, arrived earlier this week as Xi’s representative.

As Southeast Asian leaders seek to bolster 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 the US semiconductor export ban. in China, according to Chong.

“ASEAN states will try to find a way to navigate all of this, and they will look to both Beijing and Washington to see what kind of leeway they can offer,” he said.

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