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World leaders are gathering in Phnom Penh this weekend for the first of a series of international summits in Southeast Asia next week, where major power divisions and conflicts threaten to overshadow the talks.
The first stop is the Cambodian capital, where leaders from across the Indo-Pacific region will meet together for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit, followed next week by a meeting of leaders of the Group of 20 (G- 20) in Bali and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bangkok.
The stacked diplomatic line-up will be a test of the international appetite for coordination on issues such as climate change, global inflation and rising food prices amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – and for 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 loom over this political calendar, as the war in Ukraine radically changes Russia’s relationship with the West, the two leading global economies, the US and China, remain locked in intensifying competition and the rest of the world squeezes. to select a country.
Whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will appear 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 a power struggle between Beijing and Washington.
Xi is re-emerging on the world stage after years without travel during the pandemic after securing a norm-breaking third term in power, while Biden heads to the East fresh off his party’s better-than-expected showing in the US midterm elections . Both are expected to present 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 face-to-face meeting since Biden’s election, the White House said Thursday. On Friday, Beijing confirmed Xi’s travel plans to the G20 and ATIS summits 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 who will meet at a series of summits in the coming days, forging robust agreements to tackle global problems – already a tough deal at the best of times – will be a challenge.
Even the most regional of the meetings, the ASEAN Southeast Asian Leaders’ Summit – which began in Phnom Penh on Friday and is set to discuss strengthening regional stability as well as global challenges – will reflect fractured world politics, experts say.
But unlike other major meetings, which are perhaps more squarely focused on the fallout from the war in Ukraine, ASEAN leaders enter this weekend’s summit and related meetings under pressure to deal with the growing conflict in their own bloc : as Myanmar remains in turmoil and under military rule nearly two years after a brutal coup that ousted the democratically elected government.
Differences among Southeast Asian countries over how to deal with this conflict, compounded by their cross-aligned allegiances to the great powers — and the bloc’s reluctance to appear to take sides between the U.S. and China — will all affect how far the group can to agree and what it can achieve in the whole 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 at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok. .
“But (ASEAN) is very divided on Russian aggression, on the Myanmar coup crisis, on China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, etc., and that means ASEAN is in bad shape,” he said he.
In a UN vote last month, seven of the 10 ASEAN countries, including the representative of 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.
But ASEAN as a bloc also took a step to tighten ties with Kyiv at events this week, signing a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Ukraine at a ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
The bloc aims to use consensus among its nations as its strength when bringing bigger global players to the table, such as at its neighboring East Asia Summit, which brings together 18 Indo-Pacific nations, including Russia, China and the United States , and also a date this weekend.
“If ASEAN cannot bring order at home, if ASEAN cannot rein in 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 commitment and determination … it can have a lot of pull.”
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 returned and the number of documented violent attacks by the ruling military junta against civilian infrastructure, including schools, increased.
Numerous armed rebel groups emerged against the ruling military junta, while millions resisted its rule through forms of civil disobedience.
The weekend summits in Phnom Penh will bring the conflict back into international focus as Southeast Asian leaders try to find a way forward after Myanmar’s ruling junta failed to implement a peace plan agreed last April. The country remains part of ASEAN, despite calls by human rights groups for its expulsion, but has been barred from sending political-level representatives to key events.
ASEAN foreign ministers made a last-ditch attempt to come up with a strategy late last month, with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon, who chaired the meeting, stressing in a statement afterward that the challenges boiled down to “the complexity and difficulty of decades of Myanmar – long protracted conflicts, which has been further exacerbated by the current political crisis.”
But observers do not have high expectations for a tougher stance, at least while Cambodia chairs the bloc, and are already looking ahead to next year when Indonesia takes the lead in 2023.
Addressing the “ongoing crisis” will be at the center of Biden’s talks with Southeast Asian leaders as he attends ASEAN summits over the weekend, the White House said on Tuesday. After the coup, the Biden administration imposed 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 tough action, observers say. The months-long investigation 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.”
It could also have an impact on this weekend’s results, according to political scientist Chong Jae Yang, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Because of Russian and (Chinese) support for the junta, any effort to find a solution on the part of ASEAN will require some form of engagement with them, whether it’s getting support or even just not opposing it,” Chong said.
The Myanmar crisis is not the only area where a US-China divide could loom over the ASEAN summits, even issues such as China’s aggression in the South China Sea – where Beijing makes territorial claims that conflict with those of several Southeast Asian countries – may be less important this year.
ASEAN will hold its usual 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 strengthen 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 following the US ban on semiconductor exports to China. according to Chong.
“ASEAN countries will try to find some way to deal with all of this and will look to both Beijing and Washington to see what leeway they can provide,” he said.