Southeast Asian foreign ministers are gathering in the Cambodian capital for meetings addressing persisting violence in Myanmar and other issues, joined by top diplomats from the United States, China, Russia and other world powers amid tensions over the invasion of Ukraine and concerns over Beijing’s growing ambitions in the region.
The meeting in Phnom Penh of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will see U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov together at the same venue for the second time in a month, though it's not clear whether the two will meet.
The two did not meet separately when they both attended the Group of 20 foreign ministers' meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in early July. But they had their first direct contact since before Russia invaded Ukraine in a phone call Friday, when Blinken urged Moscow to accept a deal to release American detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and discussed other issues.
Also attending is Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Many have urged Beijing to use its partnership with Russia to push for an end to the conflict in Ukraine and to help promote peace and a return to civilian rule in Myanmar after a February 2021 coup sparked mass protests and an armed resistance.
The meetings come at a time of tension between Washington and Beijing as the U.S. pushes back against China’s growing economic and military influence in the Asia-Pacific.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is touring the region and arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday. That has heightened friction further, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian cautioning last week that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Communist-ruled China considers Taiwan its own territory, and has said it might take the island by force if it deems it necessary. The U.S. follows a “one China” policy in which it recognizes Beijing as the government of China yet maintains informal relations and defense ties with Taiwan.
In a call last week with U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese leader Xi Jinping objected to the possibility of a visit by Pelosi, who became the highest-level U.S. official to travel to Taiwan in more than 25 years.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, its impact on global food and energy prices and escalating China-U.S. friction are of high concern for the 10 ASEAN nations, said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program for Australia’s Lowy Institute.
“This is one of the first regional meetings of foreign ministers to have been held in person since 2019, so for the United States, China and even Russia, meetings like this are a really important opportunity to demonstrate their support for ASEAN and present their own narratives about their commitment to regional security and prosperity,” she said.
Blinken, Wang and Lavrov have all been jockeying for influence recently in multiple foreign trips. Following the meetings, Blinken heads to the Philippines and then on to Africa.
Biden hosted ASEAN leaders at the White House in May at the group's first-ever summit in Washington. During those meetings, Biden announced he was nominating one of his top national security aides as ambassador to the group, underscoring the Asia-Pacific region's importance to the U.S.
Most recently, Lavrov has focused on Africa, while Wang visited multiple Pacific islands in May and made a five-nation swing through Southeast Asia last month.
During that trip, he said China was speeding up talks with ASEAN, which includes four countries that are in dispute with Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea, to come up with a nonaggression pact called a “code of conduct” to turn the body of water “into a sea of peace and cooperation.”
The ASEAN meetings also bring together some countries that have, or are negotiating, partnerships with ASEAN, including India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Australia, in particular, has highlighted the importance of the ASEAN nations, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong saying last month that they should see new alliances, including the “Quad” group of Australia, U.S., India and New Japan and the “AUKUS” group of Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., as beneficial to the region.
“ASEAN centrality means that we will always think about our security in the context of your security,” she said at a forum in Singapore.
“We understand deeply the ways in which they are interconnected. We believe that Australia must find its security in Asia, not from Asia, and that means, above all, in Southeast Asia.”
Myanmar, where the military ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, is a member of the 10-nation ASEAN group. It is not sending any delegates after other members decided no Myanmar political representatives could attend.
Escalating violence in the country is prominent on the ASEAN agenda as it struggles to implement a five-point consensus it reached on Myanmar last year. It calls for dialogue among all concerned parties, providing humanitarian assistance, an immediate end to violence and a visit by a special ASEAN envoy to meet with all parties.
Suu Kyi’s ouster triggered widespread peaceful protests that were violently suppressed. They have evolved into an armed resistance and the country has slipped into what some U.N. experts characterize as a civil war.
Blinken has criticized ASEAN for not doing enough on Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The resumption of judicial executions in late July, when the military-led government hanged four political prisoners, has driven a stronger backlash against its military rulers, with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah condemning the act as a “crime against humanity.”
New sanctions are being considered and Saifuddin said ahead of the meetings that the group should consider scrapping or revising its five-point consensus. He said ASEAN’s special envoy also needs to meet with the National Unity Government, a shadow civilian administration established outside Myanmar, to help develop a new political framework.
“The end game is a democratic, inclusive and just, peaceful and harmonious, prosperous Myanmar whose civil and political rights are guaranteed by the constitution,” he said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has proposed that ASEAN hold a special meeting on Myanmar specifically to discuss recent developments.
More than 2,100 people have been killed by the military government since it took power and nearly 15,000 have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organization that tracks killings and arrests.
“All developments in Myanmar, including the death penalty for political prisoners, show a setback rather than progress from the implementation of the five-point consensus,” Marsudi said.
Cambodia currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, which also includes the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei in addition to Myanmar.