China and Myanmar likely to be high on the agenda when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Australia

Melbourne, Australia –

An increasingly assertive China and a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar are likely to be high on the agenda when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Australia for a rare summit this week.

The Special ASEAN-Australia Summit starting in Melbourne on Monday marks 50 years since Australia became the Asian bloc’s first official partner.

Leaders of nine of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to attend the three-day summit, with Myanmar excluded from political representation over its failure to curb violence in that country since a military junta took control in 2021. The leader of East Timor has been invited as an official ASEAN observer and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese invited his New Zealand counterpart to Melbourne to meet regional leaders.

“Australia sees ASEAN at the center of a stable, peaceful and prosperous region,” Albanese said in a statement on Friday.

“Strengthening our relationship ensures our shared future prosperity and security,” he added.

Australia has hosted ASEAN leaders once before in Sydney in 2018. The leaders issued a statement with the host country at the time calling for a code of conduct covering the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where China has become increasingly assertive over its competing territorial claims. with several ASEAN countries.

ASEAN member Australia and the Philippines conducted joint maritime and air patrols in the South China Sea for the first time in November last year.

Also in November, Australia proposed that ASEAN members declare in a joint statement at the end of the Melbourne summit their support for the 2016 Hague arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. the Australian Broadcasting Corp said in December. China has rejected that ruling.

Other ASEAN countries with conflicting territorial claims with China include Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

China’s increasingly assertive stance in the South China Sea and violence in Myanmar headlined a meeting of ASEAN diplomats in January in Laos, the group’s poorest nation, which has assumed rotating leadership of the bloc this year.

International Crisis Group Asia program deputy director Huong Le Thu, who is attending the summit in Australia, said ASEAN has always been divided over how to approach China, with each member country maintaining a unique bilateral relationship with the giant. economic.

“I don’t see that a common approach is feasible. They are working on the best way to manage this power asymmetry they have with China,” Le Thu said.

The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar looming over the summit challenges ASEAN’s credibility as an organization, he said.

“First of all, it raises the question of its existence: why do the governments of the countries of the region meet and what is the purpose of this intergovernmental institution if it cannot act on the internal crisis that affects its own organization and the region?” Le Thu said.

Around 200 protesters, mostly from the Myanmar diaspora, demonstrated outside the summit on Monday morning demanding the restoration of democracy in Myanmar and that ASEAN not engage with the country’s military leaders.

Australia, as host of the summit, focuses on maritime cooperation, economic ties, climate change and clean energy.

Melissa Conley Tyler, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Dialogue on Development, Diplomacy and Defense think tank, hopes leaders will focus on what they have in common rather than their differences on issues such as China and Myanmar.

“The focus will be on how Australia and ASEAN countries work together to create a region where we want to live.” said Conley Tyler, who is attending the summit.

“Myanmar is an ongoing issue, but I’m not sure the focus will be on it. I feel like the focus will be positive, very future-oriented, talking about what we can do together and generating that sense of excitement and momentum,” she added.

ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and have a combined population of more than 650 million and a GDP of more than $3 trillion.

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