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Upcoming AMM Facing Uphill Tasks

26 July 2022

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor:  The ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting (AMM) next week will be a test of its centrality and relevancy as never seen before. The annual meeting has to confront sensitive new and divisive issues that will require the 55-year-old bloc's collective wisdom, commitment, and foresight.

At the upcoming annual meeting, external issues will dominate the agenda. The ripple effects of the Russian-Ukraine war, Myanmar's quagmire, and Timor Leste' s membership of ASEAN are three hot issues that ASEAN members will spend time discussing. The earlier identified 36 priorities by the Cambodian chair during its first informal meeting in Siem Reap in January are still important for ASEAN. Indeed progress has been made on the cross-sectoral pillars but they have escaped public and media attention. However, for the benefit of Asean's optics in the international community, tackling these external issues forcefully is essential.

It will be interesting to watch the impacts of the Russian invasion of Ukraine beyond the news headlines. On the diplomatic front, it is well-known that Asean members hold different views and positions on the war. Despite their divergent views, they managed to issue three joint statements to reiterate their common positions, which are still relevant today as the war is entering its sixth month. ASEAN is calling for an immediate ceasefire, peaceful negotiations, humanitarian assistance, and a full investigation into reported atrocities in Ukraine. ASEAN also stands ready to facilitate any peace efforts.

If the war drags on, greater repercussions will be felt on the bloc as a whole. The chair has already invited Russia and its leader to attend the AMM post-ministerial meeting and Asean-related summits despite the harsh criticism by Prime Minister Hun Sen of the invasion of Ukraine. Among the three former recipients of aid from the former Soviet Union with the others being Vietnam and the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Cambodia has been more liberal and in the process has become less dependent on Russia after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. Until recently, consortiums of donors had been assisting the country's socio-economic development. Phnom Penh's position on the conflict was pretty much closely aligned with the West. As the region's longest-reigning prime minister, Hun Sen is a leader for all terrains and seasons.

Again, it must be noted that Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand jointly issued in early May an unprecedented statement on the importance of international meetings they are currently hosting. They knew that the West would import the European conflict into the diplomatic arena in Southeast Asia. They also want Asean's support.

The joint statement succinctly reiterates that these meetings "share commonalities that provide a unique opportunity for all participating countries/economies to jointly advance the collective global and regional agenda and efforts to bring peace, prosperity, and sustainable and inclusive development to all our peoples". In short, please do not rock the boat, let us do our jobs -- promoting dialogue, cooperation and peace.

ASEAN leaders are hoping that their appeals will be welcome. Furthermore, they also hope that the war in Ukraine will come to an end before the festival of summits in the region so there is still time for dialogue and reconciliation. So far, that has not been the case. Both Indonesia and Thailand have already witnessed the diplomatic proxy war at the G20 foreign and economic ministerial meetings as well as the Apec 2022 trade ministerial meeting. There were walkouts and no joint statements due to Western countries' boycott of Russia. If the war continues, all three summits will be held hostage by the two opposing groups in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Within the region, the Myanmar crisis has also reached a critical juncture. In the next five months, if Myanmar is unable to achieve so-called 'substantive progress' under the five-point consensus (5PC), the chances for the State Administrative Council (SAC) to return to the Asian family's embrace do not look promising. Nay Pyi Taw will have another opportunity to respond positively the bloc as its special envoy will visit there in early September for the third time.

Kudos must go to Cambodia and its chairmanship for trying to create a conducive environment for all stakeholders to partake in the peace process under the 5PC. But real politics is fast and cruel. No parties concerned currently are willing to give in and jump-start the much-needed political dialogue. All sides are still fighting, causing high civilian casualties. They think erroneously that this war can be won.

The special envoy's latest trip was unable to produce the kind of breakthrough that warrants the presence of SAC Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin. So far, Prak Sokhonn, Asean's special envoy, has been trying to inform stakeholders and the public both inside and outside Myanmar of Asean's stance and ongoing efforts. He has given detailed information about his past two visits to Myanmar so the international community can judge the values and role of the special envoy, especially those that are work in progress.

Indeed, the status of the ASEAN special envoy remains a tricky topic, which will be discussed at the August ministerial meeting. ASEAN ministers understand well the rotational appointment does not have sufficient time to manage and follow up on all issues that have been raised to resolve Myanmar's crisis. It is possible that ASEAN might consider a new formula that would elect a special envoy permanently attaching to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. The new envoy will continue, regardless of the chair, with the mandate to follow up on progress in Myanmar.

As the next ASEAN chair, Indonesia will be influential in determing the status of the ASEAN special envoy. Jakarta has strongly supported its veteran diplomat, Hassan Wirajuda, to man the post. Malaysia, which earlier proposed the idea of a permanent special envoy, has its own favourite candidate, former Myanmar special envoy, Tan Sri Ismail Razali.

Another bone of contention will be Timor Leste's membership of ASEAN. Over the past decade, right after Dili stated that this tiny country wanted to join Asean in 2002, the pros and cons of having the world's youngest democracy and poorest nation have been widely discussed. ASEAN leaders, knowing full well the long-term ramifications of having an 11th member, have not been very enthusiastic. So they seldom talk about it.

Today, the fate of Timor Leste's Asean membership remains uncertain. Most of the opposition is targeted at the country's economic backwardness, poverty, and inability and low-level of readiness to take part in hundreds of ASEAN meetings annually. Indeed, the same was true in the case of CLM (Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar) but their integration with the ASEAN community had been proceeding uninterrupted. However, the Feb 1 coup in Myanmar dented the grouping's seamless integration.

Other issues impacting Timor Leste's membership have been the country's liberal-minded system and diplomatic legacy and direction. Certain ASEAN members fear the new member would invite additional uncertainty, albeit increasing democratic credibility, and partisanship, further complicating the bloc's decision-making process. Furthermore, for better or worse, it will bring into focus the sharp contrast in both image and discourse with other small Asean members.

Truth be told, like the other new members joined Asean after 1995, peer assistance and empathy will help Timor Leste, if admitted, to quickly become acquainted with the ASEAN way and other manners. During his recent visit to Jakarta, President Ramos-Horta stated his case to Indonesian President Joko Widodo that his country hoped to join Asean during his chairmanship next year and it to be highly symbolic. Recently, a fact-finding team from the Asean Economic Community was in Dili to assess the situation. With all reports in from representatives from the three communities, the decision now can be made. No more excuses.

Judging from the earlier draft of the 55th ASEAN joint communique, most of the attention will zero in on the Russia-Ukraine war and Myanmar, which will be negotiated until the final minutes. Other regional issues such as the situation in the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula will have more or less similar content to the previous year.

In the case of the South China Sea, Asean will emphasise the need to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law. In addition, ASEAN expects the second reading of the first draft to be completed by the end of this year under the Cambodian chair. If that is the case, then the code of conduct could be finalised under the Indonesian chair next year.

Throughout its history, ASEAN will continue to adjust and improve its organisation in an incremental way. To prepare for the future, the High Level Task Force will soon submit the so-called central elements they want to see included in the ASEAN Vision beyond 2025. There will be some exciting and unexpected elements for the new ASEAN vision. Some countries have already lamented that a ten-year vision (2025-2035) is too short and that ASEAN should have a 20-year vision from 2025-2045 to be ready for the metaverse world.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in The Bangkok Post.   Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

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