Southeast Asia is hosting three key regional and multilateral summits from November 10 to 19 – the ASEAN and related summits, the G-20 leaders’ summit and the APEC economic summit – along with the much-awaited Biden-Xi summit.
For the first time in several years, Southeast Asian countries are hosting three big diplomatic gatherings back to back, in a span of ten days. Starting with the ten-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and its related summits in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), which began on November 10. It will be followed by the G-20 (Group of Twenty) summit in Bali (Indonesia) from November 15 to 16, and the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Bangkok (Thailand) from November 18 to 19.
For the past several decades, ASEAN-centered regional mechanisms and institutions remain as the lynchpin of regionalism in the Asia-Pacific. ASEAN summits are held regularly since 1976 (twice annually) and the related East Asia Summits since 2005. This year’s ASEAN and related summits are being held in person after a gap of two years of virtual summits, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Besides the ASEAN leaders’ summit, the organisation also holds bilateral summits with China, Japan, South Korea, India, the U.S., Australia, Canada, the United Nations, along with the “ASEAN-Plus-Three” format (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and South Korea) and 18-member East Asia format (EAS) summits. Other key related forums include the 18-member ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) and the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). While the former meeting will be held later this month in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the latter meeting was held earlier this year, in August, in Phnom Penh.
The 1967-formed ASEAN has been historically trying to distance itself from taking sides in great power rivalries and has favoured economic and cultural cooperation above all political and geopolitical considerations. ASEAN continues to remain divided on Myanmar, even though the junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was not invited for the summit. After more than a decade of negotiations, ASEAN has finally agreed in principle to admit Timor-Leste as the bloc’s eleventh member.
The meetings take place in the backdrop of persisting tensions at the regional and global levels including the ten-month-long war in Ukraine, the unabated civilian crackdown and unrest in Myanmar since the February 2021 coup d’état, growing Chinese belligerence in the South and East China Seas, escalating security scenario in the Korean peninsula and the all-pervading U.S.-China strategic competition.
The crawling Myanmar question
Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN since July 1997. Post the February 2021 coup that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government removed from power by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), the Buddhist-majority country has spiraled into bloody civil conflict. The Tatmadaw is also accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims. ASEAN has agreed on a peace plan called the “Five-Point Consensus” two months after the coup, but the grouping is not effective in its implementation as the Tatmadaw continues to drag its feet on the reconciliation process.
ASEAN is struggling to pressurize Myanmar’s military junta as the grouping began to work on a new implementation plan with a specific timeline, by engaging all stakeholders in the conflict under the aegis of a Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar. This will likely involve meeting representatives of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a self-declared parallel body of mostly former legislators of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s political party, which the Tatmadaw regards as “terrorists”. No significant step in Myanmar’s national reconciliation could be taken without duly engaging the civilian leadership.
Differing views on Ukraine
Out of the ten ASEAN member-states, eight voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, while Vietnam and Laos (socialist countries with close links to Moscow) abstained. At the same time, Singapore imposed economic sanctions on Russia along the Western lines, taking the strongest stance among all ASEAN member states.
Interestingly, Cambodia too has openly taken the Ukrainian side. In fact, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, attended the first day of the ASEAN summits as Phnom Penh’s special invitee and even signed the instrument of accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, in a largely symbolic move. Despite this, the organisation has failed to reach a consensus on allowing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the summit virtually.
While President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the host of the G-20 summit, wanted to extend his invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin as well, citing that the grouping should not be politicized, the latter decided not to attend the East Asia Summit and the other two summits, of which Moscow is also part of. All these reflect the striking differences and lack of unity among the ASEAN countries on key issues of contemporary global geopolitics.
When Biden meets Xi
U.S. President Joe Biden is physically present for both the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN bilateral summit in Phnom Penh. He will also be present at the G-20 summit in Bali. He reached Cambodia after attending the COP-27 climate summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh. From Cambodia, he will head to Indonesia’s Bali for the G-20 summit, in which the most-overlooked event would be his first in-person meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping after assuming the Presidency in January 2021.
The two leaders have spoken over phone about five times previously and have also met as Vice-Presidents before. Biden has repeatedly remarked on record that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if attacked by China, which the White House clarified every time that it does not represent a shift in the official U.S. policy towards the island.
Biden is expected to reassure Washington’s commitment to a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region and discuss trade and other causes for the strained overall bilateral ties between Washington and Beijing, particularly in the backdrop of the Fourth Taiwan Crisis that played out in August this year following the visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island of Taiwan, which Beijing viewed as an unnecessary provocation.
The two leaders are expected to reach a new understanding on the modalities for managing the rising strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. Biden is also expected to use the ASEAN-led platforms to catch up with other East Asian leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, particularly in the background of North Korea’s reckless missile tests.
G-20 and APEC
The 1999-formed G-20 is one of the most important multilateral economic forums in the world as nations in the group collectively represent more than 80% of the global GDP, 75% of global trade, and 60% of the world population. The forum includes both developing and developed countries. Following its inaugural leaders’ summit in 2008, the G-20 announced that it would replace the West-led G-7 as the premier economic forum of the world, even though the G-7 continues to exist even today.
The 21-member APEC, on the other hand, operates parallelly as an inter-governmental economic forum for the Pacific Rim states only, with the key objective of promoting and facilitating free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Several bilateral and other meetings usually take place on the sidelines on the G-20 and APEC summits. The world’s attention is, thus, yet again on Southeast Asia as leaders and high-level officials from the region and around the world gather here with high expectations and fingers crossed.