Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet United States President Joe Biden at a White House summit on Thursday, as the US attempts to drive home its “enduring 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 all the countries’ leaders visited the US was in 2016, when they met then-President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands ranch in California.
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Only eight of the group’s 10 leaders are expected in Washington, DC, this time around.
The Philippines is in the midst of a leadership transition after polls this week to choose a new president, while Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who toppled Myanmar’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a 2021 coup, has been barred from the event.
A senior official in the US said there had been discussions over whether to have “an empty chair to reflect our dissatisfaction with what’s taken place and our hope for a better path forward”.
What is happening over the two days?
Biden is rolling out the red carpet for the Southeast Asian leaders – including Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen who has wiped out any domestic opposition to his rule and, in his role as the current chair of ASEAN, ruffled feathers by becoming the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar since the February 2021 coup.
The first official engagement on May 12 will be a visit to the Capitol, where the ASEAN leaders will meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and have a working lunch with both Democrat and Republican members.
After that, they will meet Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai as well as senior 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 listen to the 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 have “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 to focus on maritime cooperation, pandemic recovery, and health security. Climate 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 to broaden it across every element of our government,” the spokesperson said.
Later on the second day, the leaders will meet Biden for a second time.
“The meeting is the message,” the Reuters news agency quoted former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan as saying at the Stimson Center think tank on Monday.
What about Myanmar?
Myanmar has been a member of ASEAN since 1997, when it was admitted to the organisation during a previous military regime.
The group, which operates under the principle of consensus and non-interference, appears to have taken a marginally tougher line towards the generals with 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 a so-called ‘five point consensus‘ was agreed upon to chart a way out of the crisis triggered by the military’s power grab.
But the generals have made no effort to meet any of the commitments, which included “constructive dialogue” with “all parties” to end the turmoil and bring an “immediate” end to the violence.
Some 1,833 people have been killed since the coup and more than 13,500 arrested, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, which has been monitoring the situation.
If anything, the violence seems to have increased since the agreement was signed with mounting attacks on civilians, entire villages razed and increased fighting with ethnic armed groups. Some UN experts have said 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, perhaps, the help from other countries supportive of ASEAN will take the lead in basically determining what are the appropriate next steps for the institution with respect to its demands and expectations inside the country,” the US senior official said.
Splits within ASEAN
The Myanmar generals’ failure to respond to the group’s diplomatic initiatives has created splits within ASEAN.
Some member states, such as Malaysia, are advocating informal engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG), the administration established by members of the elected government who were forced from office by the military, and other pro-democracy supporters.
Others, including Cambodia’s Hun Sen, appear content to limit contact with the generals. The first foreign leader to travel to Myanmar since the coup, he got the red carpet treatment. Critics said the visit lent the regime unwarranted legitimacy.
The foreign ministers of ASEAN gathered for informal discussions on Thursday morning, ahead of the main summit.
In a statement, Malaysia’s foreign minister disclosed that he again said ASEAN should engage with the NUG, and not allow the military to “be dictating” who is invited to meetings. He also expressed “regret” that they had not allowed Noeleen Heyzer, the UN’s special envoy on Myanmar, into the country.
Last week, at talks in Phnom Penh, the group agreed it would allow the military to control the distribution of aid in Myanmar in a move that was condemned in an open letter signed by 765 civil society organisations from Myanmar, the region and beyond.
“We are concerned that ASEAN, under the Cambodia Chairship, while opening its door to the military junta, has been continuously reluctant to engage with the NUG and other related parties in direct contradiction to the Five Point Consensus, which calls for inclusive dialogue,” the letter said.
“The decision [to channel humanitarian aid through the military] will only bring regress and risks ASEAN aiding and abetting the military’s atrocities on the ground.”
Beyond the crisis in Myanmar, Biden has convened 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 lays claims to almost the entire area under its so-called nine-dash line.
Southeast Asian nations, some of which also have claims on the sea, have traditionally sought out the US as a bulwark against China while also trying to avoid being drawn into ‘great power’ politics or being forced to choose between them.
“U.S. support for ASEAN-based multilateralism empowers the bloc and strengthens its resilience, especially in the face of Chinese efforts to divide it, which it has repeatedly done to blunt ASEAN’s ability to push back against Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea,” Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia at the United States Institute for Peace, wrote in a preview of the summit.
The US, meanwhile, is keen to reassure ASEAN that it remains engaged despite developments elsewhere in the world. It released its Indo-Pacific Strategy in February, which called for an “empowered ASEAN” alongside existing – and updated regional alliances such as the Quad.
“There is a deep recognition that fundamental long-term challenges are playing out in the Indo-Pacific. And the United States is committed and determining to ensuring that our engagement in the region is broad, is broad-based, and is sustained,” according to a senior administration official.
What about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The US has said it expects a “broad discussion” of Ukraine and Russia during the summit.
With the exception of Singapore, no Southeast Asian countries have joined Western-led sanctions on Moscow, and while most joined the UN General Assembly vote reprimanding Russia’s actions in the country, Vietnam and Laos voted against it.
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 Economic Cooperation forum.
Indonesia has already indicated it will not disinvite Russian President Vladimir Putin but, in what appears to be a compromise, has extended an invitation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.