The Latest on Southeast Asia: July 20, 2023

Indonesia, this year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair, held a flurry of ministerial meetings earlier this month. From July 11-12, it hosted the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta. Timor Leste, which became an ASEAN observer state last year, sent a delegation for the first time. Chief among the ministers’ conversation topics was the ongoing civil war in Myanmar; moreover, ministers shared their continued concerns regarding aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. On July 13, ASEAN foreign ministers, joined by their counterparts from Japan, China, and South Korea, met for the 24th ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ meeting. Lastly, Indonesia hosted the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 14, setting the stage for ASEAN partners such as the United States, Russia, and China, to meet on the sidelines.

Ahead of these meetings, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi maintained that ASEAN credibility is only possible through maintaining ASEAN unity and centrality. Myanmar remains a divisive issue among ASEAN partners, testing the bloc’s ability to reach a consensus. Myanmar could not send a delegation due to the junta’s refusal to abide by the five-point consensus. Disagreements on content and language delayed the ministers’ communique on Myanmar. These disagreements ride on the coattails of ongoing quarrels between ASEAN member states, which have different stances on addressing the situation in Myanmar. Last month, Thailand invited ASEAN officials to meet with chief junta members. ASEAN members largely snubbed the controversial meeting. Cambodia sent a junior diplomat; meanwhile, other countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, did not send a delegation at all.

The South China Sea was another key topic during the ministerial meetings. ASEAN ministers continued to express their concern over land reclamation, military activities, and ongoing incidents in the South China Sea that contribute to marine environment degradation and increased tensions in the region. In their discussions, China and ASEAN nations agreed to “accelerate” negotiations on the long-sought code of conduct for the South China Sea. China’s foreign affairs chief Wang Yi recommended they conclude talks in three years. This has been met with skepticism since he set the same three-year goal in 2018. Even if a code is reached, it is unlikely to contain the kind of details and enforceability that would curb China’s aggressive behavior at sea.

The ASEAN Regional Forum also provided an opportunity for great power dialogue—Russia, China, and the United States sent delegations. Conversations between the U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov were generally unproductive. Blinken also met with Wang Yi for another round of talks intended to steer how the two powers could navigate the increasingly complicated state of U.S.-China competition.

Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. 

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