Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet US President Joe Biden at a summit at the White House on Thursday, as the US tries to bring home its “lasting commitment” to the region.
The summit marks the first time ASEAN leaders have been invited to the White House in 45 years. The last time leaders from all countries visited the United States was in 2016, when they met with then-President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Ranch in California.
Only eight of the 10 group leaders are expected in Washington, DC, this time.
The Philippines is in the midst of a leadership transition after this week’s elections to elect a new president, while General-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who ousted Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup in 2021, he was unable to participate in the event.
A senior US official said there were discussions about whether to have “an empty chair to reflect our dissatisfaction with what happened and our hope for a better way forward.”
What is happening during the two days?
Biden is rolling out the red carpet for Southeast Asian leaders, including Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has eliminated any domestic opposition to his government and, in his role as current ASEAN president, unsettled by becoming the first leader Foreigner visiting Myanmar since the February 2021 coup.
The first official engagement on May 12 will be a visit to Capitol Hill, where ASEAN leaders will meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and have a working lunch with Democratic and Republican members.
After that, they will meet with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, as well as high-level business leaders to discuss deeper economic cooperation.
In the evening, the leaders will join President Joe Biden for an “intimate dinner” at the White House.
The event is “an opportunity to hear from leaders about their aspirations for where they want to take ASEAN and how the United States can help,” the senior official said. Each leader will also get “quick, private time” with Biden, he added.
On May 13, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host a working lunch with discussions focused on maritime cooperation, pandemic recovery, and health security. The weather will also be on the agenda.
“Part of the ambition of this summit is to broaden and deepen not only the level of engagement in the US government, but also to broaden it across all elements of our government,” the spokesperson said.
Later on the second day, the leaders will meet with Biden for a second time.
“The meeting is the message,” Reuters news agency quoted former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan at the Stimson Center think tank as saying on Monday.
What about Burma?
Myanmar has been a member of ASEAN since 1997, when it was admitted to the organization during a previous military regime.
The group, which operates on the principle of consensus and non-interference, appears to have taken a slightly tougher line towards the generals in the latest coup, which followed 10 years of political reform.
Min Aung Hlaing attended a summit of the group in April 2021, at the end of which the so-called ‘five point consensus‘ was agreed to plot a way out of the crisis triggered by the military’s seizure of power.
But the generals have made no effort to honor any of the commitments, which included “constructive dialogue” with “all parties” to end the turmoil and put an “immediate” end to the violence.
Some 1,833 people have been killed since the coup and more than 13,500 have been arrested, according to the Political Prisoners Assistance Association, which has been monitoring the situation.
In any case, the violence seems to have increased since the agreement with increasing attacks on civilians, entire villages razed to the ground and increased clashes with armed ethnic groups. Some UN experts have said that the country is now in a state of civil war.
“I think some of those steps have stalled, and we’re looking for an indication that ASEAN and maybe help from other countries that support ASEAN will take the lead in basically determining what the appropriate next steps are for the institution.” regarding their demands and expectations within the country,” said the senior US official.
Divisions within ASEAN
The lack of response from Myanmar generals to the group’s diplomatic initiatives has created divisions within ASEAN.
Some member states, such as Malaysia, advocate an informal compromise with the National Unity Government (NUG), the administration set up by members of the elected government who were forced from office by the military and other supporters of democracy.
Others, including Cambodia’s Hun Sen, seem content to limit contact with the generals. The first foreign leader to travel to Myanmar since the coup, he received the red carpet treatment. Critics said the visit lent the regime unwarranted legitimacy.
ASEAN foreign ministers met for informal discussions on Thursday morning, ahead of the main summit.
In a statement, Malaysia’s foreign minister revealed that he again said ASEAN should engage with the NUG and not allow the military to “dictate” who is invited to meetings. He also expressed his “regret” for not allowing Noeleen Heyzer, the UN special envoy to Myanmar, to enter the country.
In talks in Phnom Penh last week, the group agreed it would allow the military to control aid distribution in Myanmar, a move that was condemned in an open letter signed by 765 civil society organizations from Myanmar, the region and beyond. there.
“We are concerned that ASEAN, under the Cambodian Presidency, while opening its doors to the military junta, has been continually unwilling to engage with the NUG and other related parties in direct contradiction to the Five Point Consensus, which calls for dialogue inclusive”. the letter said.
“The decision [to channel humanitarian aid through the military] it will only bring regression and risks ASEAN aiding and abetting the military’s atrocities on the ground.”
Beyond the crisis in Myanmar, Biden has called the summit at a time of intense rivalry in the Asia Pacific, with China an increasingly assertive presence from the Pacific to the South China Sea, where it claims nearly the entire area under its control. domain. called nine-dash line.
Southeast Asian nations, some of which also have claims to the sea, have traditionally looked to the US as a bulwark against China as they try to avoid being drawn into “great power” politics or forced to choose between they.
“US support for ASEAN-based multilateralism empowers the bloc and strengthens its resilience, especially in the face of Chinese efforts to divide itwhat it has repeatedly done to mitigate ASEAN’s ability to push back the Chinese invasion in the South China Sea,” Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia at the US Institute for Peace, wrote in a hearing. prior to the summit.
In the meantime, the US wants to assure ASEAN that it remains committed despite developments in other parts of the world. launched his Indo-Pacific Strategy in February, which called for an “empowered ASEAN” alongside existing and updated regional alliances like the Quad.
“There is deep recognition that fundamental long-term challenges are unfolding in the Indo-Pacific. And the United States is committed and determined to ensure that our engagement in the region is broad, broad-based and sustained,” according to a senior administration official.
What about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The United States has said it expects a “broad discussion” on Ukraine and Russia during the summit.
With the exception of Singapore, no Southeast Asian country has joined Western-led sanctions against Moscow, and while most joined the UN General Assembly vote rebuking Russia’s actions in the country, Vietnam and Laos voted against.
Southeast Asian nations could prove important in terms of future diplomacy given that Indonesia is this year’s chair of the G20, which will hold its annual leaders’ summit in Bali later this year, while Cambodia will host the East Asia Summit and Thailand. , the Asia Pacific region. Economic Cooperation Forum.
Indonesia has already indicated that it will not withdraw the invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin, but, in what appears to be a commitmenthas extended an invitation to the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy.