The Latest on Southeast Asia: February 1, 2024

On January 29, Laos hosted the first major event of its year as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 2024 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, in Luang Prabang. Chaired by Lao deputy prime minister and foreign minister Saleumxay Kommasith under the theme of “ASEAN: Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience,” the retreat offered an opportunity for the bloc’s foreign ministers to assess priorities and exchange views. As reflected in the joint statement, attendees assessed Laos’s priorities as ASEAN chair: strengthening and connecting regional economies while planning for a sustainable future for the grouping. For the first time in over two years, Myanmar’s junta sent a representative—its permanent secretary for foreign affairs, Marlar Than Htike—as a representative for the summit. This was the first time the junta accepted ASEAN’s condition that it could only send a non-political representative to major meetings. Timor Leste’s foreign minister, Bendito Freitas, attended as an observer.

Foreign ministers stressed their commitment to regional peace and security, expressing concern about issues ranging from Myanmar, North Korea, and the South China Sea to the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Myanmar and the South China Sea will remain especially significant challenges for the bloc throughout Laos’s chairmanship.

In a significant development, the ASEAN foreign ministers finally reached agreement with the Myanmar junta to send humanitarian aid through the Myanmar-Thailand border as promised nearly three years ago under the Five Point Consensus on Myanmar. Aid is slated to be sent to Myanmar in late February. But overall progress on implementing the Five Point Consensus remains scant. As with previous summits, the attendees emphasized the importance of the Consensus for lasting peace in Myanmar. Deputy Prime Minister Kommasith said the junta’s decision to send a representative to the retreat was a positive sign of its willingness to engage, though any major shifts in policy by Naypyidaw seem unlikely.

The South China Sea will also remain a difficult issue for ASEAN. Without the same stake in the disputes as the previous chair, Indonesia, Laos should not be expected to pursue any ambitious efforts on the South China Sea. The foreign ministers’ joint statement made no mention of recent tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, merely restating long-established language about the bloc’s commitment to peace, stability, and freedom of navigation. The ministers expressed their desire for a speedy conclusion to negotiations on a code of conduct in line with international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative