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Myanmar crisis highlights ASEAN's identity dilemma

Failure To Manage Difficult Choices Undermines Bloc's Credibility

Screenshot 2021-10-19 152611

Southeast Asian leaders attend an emergency summit in Jakarta on Apr. 24: not surprisingly, ASEAN efforts to implement a five-point plan on Myanmar have gone nowhere.   © Indonesian Presidential Palace/AP

Something had to give: at a hastily-called "emergency meeting" of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday, regional officials confronted their failure to address the fallout from Myanmar's February 1 coup and decided that military chief Min Aung Hlaing should not join its leaders summit later this month.

Pushed strongly by Indonesia and Malaysia, the decision comes as the 10-member bloc struggles to retain credibility and relevance amid the global outcry over rising levels of violence in Myanmar, and in the face of increasing superpower rivalry between the U.S. and China that has diminished ASEAN centrality and relevance.

While it falls short of not recognizing the military regime, the decision to downgrade Myanmar's participation saved face for ASEAN ahead of its October 26 summit, which will be followed by the East Asia Summit that will add leaders from China, India, Japan, Russia, Australia and the U.S.

Weak, divided, and buffeted by great power machinations, ASEAN's lack of consensus on how assertive it should be regarding Myanmar raises questions about how much the organization can do to meet expectations that it reverse the coup.

Singapore is undergoing a leadership transition that has been complicated and drawn out by the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysia has a weak, transitional government that has been unable to establish a strong parliamentary majority. Thailand's prime minister was almost unseated by an internal revolt in a recent parliamentary no-confidence debate.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is famously uninterested in foreign affairs, while Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is in his last year of office. Cambodia, Vietnam and Brunei are ruled by strong and durable leaders, but they are keeping a low profile and focusing on domestic affairs.

This means there is simply little will to address regional problems and very poor interaction among national leaders, which makes for an extremely poor environment for assertive regional diplomacy and decision-making.

Not surprisingly, ASEAN efforts to implement the five-point plan on Myanmar agreed in April at a special emergency summit in Jakarta have gone nowhere. Special envoy Eryawan Yusof, the junior foreign minister of Brunei, was only appointed in July and was seen as a compromise after Thailand and Indonesia failed to secure support for their stronger candidates.

Unable to gain access to jailed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Eryawan will likely not visit the country before Brunei hands over the baton to Cambodia, which assumes the ASEAN chairmanship after the October summits.

As much as the world wants ASEAN to carry a bigger stick when it comes to Myanmar, it does not help that the U.S. and China have largely ignored the bloc's views when it comes to their own strategic goals. The new trilateral strategic alliance involving the U.S., Australia and the U.K. completely sidelined ASEAN, three of whose member states border China.

Frustrating as ASEAN's limitations are for some, it suits those smaller states that fear intervening in domestic political matters. Brunei's steering of Myanmar diplomacy, for example, maintains a useful check on the more assertive role of larger states like Indonesia.

Indonesia and Malaysia, meanwhile, have made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on a coordinated regional approach to Myanmar. The net result is disunity and growing public anger over the group's inaction and failure to address escalating violence and human rights abuses.

Young activists have warned that the lack of strong action will force them to seek alternatives in building a Southeast Asian community. The so-called Milk Tea Alliance of youthful protesters against authoritarian rule has drawn together supporters from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Myanmar using social media platforms, pressing ASEAN to reach out to opposition forces in Myanmar.

Is there a pathway to ASEAN recovery and relevance? Perhaps. But it will take determined regional leadership, including smarter collaboration with other medium-sized powers interested in political progress, strategic balance and stability.

One senior Indonesian diplomat has suggested that Jakarta could take the lead in convening a trilateral meeting with the U.S. and China in an effort to broker some guardrails for their naval sparring in the South China Sea to avoid sparking a larger conflict.

One major impediment to this kind of creative thinking is ASEAN's failure to strengthen its secretariat and the role of the ASEAN secretary-general. The organization's charter gives powers to the SG in offering mediation, but member states will not allow it because this kind of activism threatens the group's cherished notion of noninterference.

Neither the U.S. nor China would, in any case, welcome a more effective ASEAN, which would interfere with their big power aspirations and blunt their zero-sum strategies.

These powerful undercurrents explain the failure of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a security grouping to which both the U.S. and China belong, which has been tied up in heavily bureaucratic procedures and endless working groups that neither attract high level participation nor generate useful ideas.

With inadequate leadership, chronic institutional weakness, and increasing geostrategic polarity, the chances of reinforcing ASEAN's relevance and role look slim. Perhaps ASEAN needs a special envoy of its own.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Lives Between The Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant."