The Latest on Southeast Asia: September 14, 2023

A whirlwind of diplomatic activity converged on Southeast Asia last week. Jakarta hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia Summits (EAS) from September 4-7, where primary discussion topics included advancing economic integration, regional anxiety over U.S.-China tensions, concerns over Myanmar and the South China Sea, and the pending accession of Timor-Leste to ASEAN. At the EAS, leaders managed to issue a joint statement, unlike last year when U.S. and Russian disagreements over language about Ukraine derailed the process. U.S. vice president Kamala Harris attended both summits in place of U.S. president Joe Biden, who went to Vietnam on September 10 to announce an upgrade in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship after attending the G20 summit in New Delhi.

Issues surrounding the South China Sea loomed large at the ASEAN Summit. Notably, Philippine president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. did not push for a joint statement from ASEAN in response to recent Chinese violence against Filipino vessels around Second Thomas Shoal and the publication of China’s latest national map claiming most of the South China Sea.  But in remarks at the summit, he pushed against the narrative of the South China Sea as a backdrop for great power conflict, saying this United States versus China framing “denies” countries like the Philippines their independence and agency.

Ahead of the summit, nine ASEAN member states released a statement on the crisis in Myanmar, which called on the junta to end indiscriminate violence against civilians and implement the Five-Point Consensus it agreed to with ASEAN in 2021. Myanmar’s military regime, which was not invited to participate in the summits, decried the statement. But, under pressure from the other members, the junta agreed to cede its planned 2026 ASEAN chairmanship to the Philippines.

The EAS brought together leaders from the ASEAN member states, except Myanmar, alongside the United Statues, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and South Korea. Given the involvement of Russia, represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and China, represented by Premier Li Qiang, there was little common ground on geopolitical issues. But Indonesia as the chair managed to secure a relatively anodyne joint statement, which underscored the importance of the region as a hub for economic growth and supply chain resilience, and then issued a chairman’s statement that more directly tackled geopolitical issues such as the war in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Lastly, President Biden embarked on a historic trip to Vietnam following the G20 in India. In Hanoi, he and Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong officially elevated the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a strategic comprehensive partnership, placing the United States at the top of Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy alongside China, India, Russia, and South Korea. This was especially noteworthy because the two sides agreed to skip the interim level of strategic partnership altogether—something Vietnam has not done for any other diplomatic partner. During his trip, President Biden and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh cemented key deals on semiconductor production, energy and critical minerals, aviation, and more. How the elevation of this partnership will affect the geostrategic balance, and how China will react, remains to be seen.

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

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