As the ASEAN marks its 55 th anniversary, it’s midyear foreign ministers meeting (AMM) of Aug. 3, 2022 was as usual accompanied by two important ministerial meetings of ASEAN centric bodies. The AMM was followed by the 12 th East Asia Summit foreign ministers meeting and the 29 th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial meeting both on Aug. 5.
These meetings were chaired by the current ASEAN chairman, Cambodia, through Prak Sokhonn, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation.
The ARF in this set of meetings is the most important because it meets only at the ministerial level. The EAS FM’s report into the EAS summit which is held along with the ASEAN summit in November annually. The ARF is mainly a security related institution and the oldest among the ASEAN centric bodies. It was established in 1994, even before Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam joined ASEAN. The EAS on the other hand has 18 members compared to the ARF's 27.
Honed by consensus-based decision-making and candid dialogue, the ARF composition of 27 members includes the 10 ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam); 10 ASEAN dialogue partners, including Australia, Canada, China, the European Union (EU), India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Russia and the United States; Bangladesh, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.
It was a hectic time for the Indo-Pacific region which the EAS and ARF cover. The traditional problems with DPR Korea over its nuclearization persist. Chinese belligerency in the South China Sea has become endemic. It lingers on with promises of a code of conduct in the South China Sea with ASEAN. They resumed discussions in 2017 but have yet not gone beyond the preamble.
To this were added the pandemic and economic recovery after that. The Ukraine war and sanctions on Russia and aggressive US campaigning for them in the Indo-Pacific region challenged ASEAN countries in both their centrality and their unity.
The visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan besides Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, ruffled the Indo-Pacific because of Chinese anger at the visit leading to actions exhibiting military power and economic measures against Taiwan.
If the Pelosi visit was to reinforce American intent to work more closely with its allies, Japan and Korea and ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Singapore, it was overshadowed by the visit to Taiwan, which therefore, was the main focus of discussion at the ARF.
ASEAN abhors US-China rivalry in the region as it does not want to choose sides. ASEAN members like Singapore and Malaysia looked as they were a preamble for the main act of a wayang shadow puppet play which starred a provocative tour by US actors.
While the region welcomes increased US engagement and investment, it likes to avoid a showdown. The AMM issued a short statement on cross strait development. Reaffirming ASEAN's "one China policy" and concern with the volatility, "especially in the recent development in the area adjacent with the ASEAN region, which could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers".
This could not be avoided as China and US squared off at the ARF with China showing immense anger and trying to rally support from the ASEAN countries and others. The US pretended that they had done nothing wrong and China was overreacting. Significantly, while in previous ARF meetings, it is the US delegation which takes an aggressive position on the South China Sea, this time the situation was reversed with China taking the aggrieved position.
It was surprising that China carried this animus to a point where their foreign minister walked out of the commemorative dinner hosted by his Cambodian counterpart. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had done this at the Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Bali on July 6, but this time he attended the dinner and only Wang Yi left the venue.
Surely China was angry with the US, but to embarrass their Cambodian hosts who are among their closest allies within the ASEAN was uncharacteristic. The "I will not sit at the table with you" approach is not good diplomacy from any side and makes things difficult for the hosts. The participation of Lavrov did not seem to elicit nay walkouts at ARF.
The 29 th ARF exchanged views on international and regional issues, as well as future direction of the ARF.Besides the Taiwan Straits, the dialogue at the ARF included a discussion on the South China Sea, Myanmar, Ukraine, and the Korean peninsula as well.
ASEAN is anguished by Myanmar preventing progress on the five-point consensus plan. The military junta orders saw over 2,100 civilian deaths and the execution of four opposition activists a week before the AMM in Phnom Penh was a provocation to ASEAN too.
AMM viewed the situation in Myanmar with dismay and continued the policy of not inviting a junta representative to its meetings. The Cambodian initiative to handle the junta with soft gestures has met a rude response and Cambodia is unlikely to be seeking to invest further political capital on Myanmar in its term as ASEAN chair which concludes in November.
Indonesia as the next chair is expected to have a clearer posture.
Myanmar and Taiwan pushed the SCS to a lower position in discussion but ASEAN maintains the hope that it will conclude the Code of Conduct (CoC) this year. The resumption of physical textual negotiation of the single draft COC Negotiating Text through the convening of the 36 th JWG-DOC in May 2022 is encouraging.
ARF adopted two statements. One is the statement on promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region through preventive measures and the other is ARF Statement on Supporting the Preservation of the Southeast Asia nuclear weapon free zone (SEANWFZ). These are to maintain ASEAN centrality and keep great power rivalry at bay at least on paper. As part of India's engagement with ARF, India cochaired the 13th ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security on May 12 2022, and will co-chair the workshop series on International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code) during 2022-2023.
The ARF was fully stretched this time to deal with myriad and complex issues which afflict the region and within ASEAN itself. All eyes are on Indonesia to guide the ARF a significant boost to its initiatives, capacity and efficacy.
The writer is former Indian ambassador to ASEAN.
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