ASEAN foreign ministers gathered in Indonesia on Tuesday for talks dominated by the crisis in Myanmar, with the regional bloc divided over whether to reconnect with the coup-stricken country’s ruling junta.
A two-day meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be followed by talks with Beijing, Washington and other powers at the end of the week, where top US diplomat Antony Blinken will try to play down China’s aggression in the South China Sea.
Myanmar has been wracked by deadly violence since a military coup more than two years ago ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and cracked down on dissent.
ASEAN has long been denounced as a toothless talking shop, and it remains divided over diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
The draft of the joint communique, seen by AFP, highlighted cracks where a section on Myanmar was left blank because ASEAN members had failed to agree on a unified position beforehand.
“The paragraph is still under discussion… member states are still taking time to submit their proposals,” a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP.
A decade ago, in 2012, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique due to a language dispute regarding the South China Sea.
The diplomat said on condition of anonymity that ASEAN members were making “extraordinary efforts” in the days before the meeting to unite the group on the Myanmar issue – a prelude to a leaders’ summit in September.
However, officials were “not very optimistic” this would happen because “some members have different views on how to deal with the problem”, he said.
Myanmar remains an ASEAN member, but has been barred from high-level meetings because of the junta’s failure to implement a five-point plan agreed two years ago to end the violence and resume talks to resolve the crisis. Has gone.
But ASEAN efforts to jump-start implementation of the plan have been futile, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents.
Meanwhile, Thailand hosted the junta’s foreign minister for controversial “informal talks” last month, deepening divisions among ASEAN members.
Cambodia sent a junior diplomat, while ASEAN presidents Indonesia and Malaysia declined to meet.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hit out at divisions within the bloc in remarks opening the session on the first day of talks.
“Our differences should not be an excuse to abandon important human rights issues in our own region. Despite the complexities on the ground, ASEAN should not waver,” he said.
– ‘Clear’ plan –
The bloc’s initiative is limited by its charter principles of unanimity and non-interference, but analysts say the meeting could inspire members to do more.
“Hopefully there will be a clear implementation plan on what ASEAN will do going forward,” Lina Alexandra of the Jakarta-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.
As the meeting began, the NGO Human Rights Watch in a press release urged ASEAN members and allies to “form a coalition of concerned governments … to press the junta more strongly over its rights abuses”.
Thursday’s ASEAN-plus-three ministerial meeting with Japan, South Korea and China, which will also be attended by Washington and Beijing, will be preceded by an ASEAN Regional Forum and foreign ministers’ meeting of the 18-nation East Asia Summit on Friday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to attend the latter’s meeting, after a brief March meeting put him in the same room again with US Secretary of State Blinken as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine continues.
A diplomat in Southeast Asia told AFP that China would be represented by top diplomat Wang Yi instead of Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
Meanwhile, North Korea – which will attend the ASEAN regional forum – has decided not to send Foreign Minister Choi Son Hui, Indonesian officials said.
Daniel Krittenbrink, the top US diplomat for East Asia, told reporters on Saturday that Washington and ASEAN members would try to “push back” Beijing’s actions in the disputed South China Sea.
China has made sweeping claims to the strategic waterway, despite opposition from many ASEAN members, who argue for unhindered freedom of navigation and that its own territorial claims should be respected.
The draft ASEAN joint communiqué called for self-restraint in the waterways and said there is “positive momentum” in the negotiations on the code of conduct.
It added, “We reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over the South China Sea.”
(This story has not been edited by NDTV Staff and has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)