This week, Indonesia hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and its related meetings with dialogue partners, including the East Asia Summit, in Jakarta. The three-day affair was bogged down by the bloc’s continued inability to sort through internal divisions over member-state Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, which has allowed the ruling junta’s violence and support for criminal enterprises to fester into transnational problems. Meanwhile, the absence of several leaders from major ASEAN partners, such as China’s Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, further dampened proceedings.
USIP’s Jason Tower and Brian Harding examine President Biden’s decision not to attend the ASEAN summit, how the Myanmar crisis has reduced ASEAN’s effectiveness, and what can be done to address the regional and global security threats emanating from Myanmar.
What does President Biden’s decision to not attend the ASEAN signal?
Harding: President Biden’s decision to travel to both India for the G20 summit and to Vietnam for a bilateral visit while skipping the ASEAN summit demonstrates a shifting U.S. approach to Asia.
In India, the Biden administration sees a historic opportunity to deepen a foundational geopolitical relationship, while the G20 represents a global agenda-setting multilateral forum. In Vietnam, Biden will tend to a blossoming bilateral relationship and oversee the formal elevation of U.S.-Vietnam ties into a comprehensive strategic partnership.
President Biden made a clear decision that traveling to Indonesia would accrue fewer benefits for the United States than these bilateral visits, despite the predictable backlash from Southeast Asian leaders.
In many ways, the decision is understandable. ASEAN has simply not been playing its natural, attractive role as the center of gravity for regional politics. Notably, ASEAN has been unable to take united action against constituent member Myanmar, whose ruling junta continues to do horrendous harm to its people and the broader region. An ASEAN willing to suspend Myanmar’s membership or otherwise put coordinated pressure on the junta would make a far more compelling partner.
Meanwhile, the East Asia Summit, which was held alongside the ASEAN summit and includes the 10 ASEAN members and eight dialogue partners, has lost momentum as an agenda-setting institution for the region due to intractable differences between its biggest members such as the United States, Japan, China and Russia.
Nonetheless, President Biden’s decision not to travel to Jakarta will be seen by the region as the United States putting ASEAN and ASEAN-based regional institutions behind other priorities. Whether this will be seen as a sign of U.S. neglect or will help spur meaningful debate on how ASEAN can regain its centrality is an open question.
Looking ahead to the fall, November’s APEC summit in San Francisco will provide an important opportunity for President Biden to make up ground with several ASEAN leaders, including Indonesia, with a multilateral meeting on U.S. soil.
There are also discussions underway about whether Indonesia President Joko Widodo, whose 10-year presidency ends in 2024, will also travel to Washington for a bilateral meeting — the increasingly preferred format for U.S. engagement with Southeast Asian partners.
How is the crisis in Myanmar impacting ASEAN now?
Tower: Just weeks before the ASEAN summit, developments in Timor Leste illustrated how ASEAN’s legitimacy and reputation have been undermined by its failure to address the ongoing violence, atrocities and global security crisis caused by the Myanmar junta.
Late last year, Timor Leste was finally accepted “in principle” as an ASEAN member after more than a decade of slow progress. But this August, just one month before the ASEAN summit, the small island country’s prime minister announced that Timor Leste would re-think plans to join ASEAN, citing the body’s failure to “convince the military junta to [end the violence].”
This statement, combined with Timor Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta’s move to invite a delegation from Myanmar’s National Unity Government for an “official visit,” prompted the Myanmar junta to expel Timor Leste’s diplomats in late August.
While President Ramos-Horta later clarified that Timor Leste would continue its bid to join ASEAN and work from inside the grouping to hold the Myanmar army accountable, the move nonetheless raised pressure on ASEAN states to act. This helped shape ASEAN’s decision to suspend Myanmar’s role as rotating chair, with the Philippines slated to step in as chair in 2026 in lieu of Myanmar.
While ASEAN may have intended for this to signal more serious action to address the crisis, the summit concluded with more questions than answers about ASEAN’s next steps. At a side meeting on Myanmar, Indonesia openly acknowledged the lack of progress, noting that the issue would take years to resolve. In an apparent effort to respond to international concerns about Laos taking over as chair next year, and thus assuming responsibility for the Myanmar issue, Indonesia announced the creation of what has been termed a troika mechanism — an arrangement between outgoing chair Indonesia, future chair Malaysia and incoming chair Laos to work collectively to identify a solution.
This arrangement could help enhance Laos’ resilience to influence from China. Beijing has put its weight behind the minority of ASEAN countries who support the Myanmar junta’s full inclusion in ASEAN and working with the violent regime to advance cross-border business interests.
What remains unclear, though, is the specific mechanisms and resources that Indonesia, Malaysia and other ASEAN members states or dialogue partners might provide to enhance Laos’ efforts as chair. One possible option would be for these countries to offer the financial and technical resources needed to institutionalize the ASEAN special envoy’s office, which was created by Indonesia to advance a strategy of inclusive engagement with a full range of Myanmar’s stakeholders, including the National Unity Government, ethnic armed organizations and the country’s political parties. This office has made some progress in building dialogue across resistance actors, and in creating a platform for Indonesia as chair to consult with Myanmar’s people.
What does the spiraling security situation in Myanmar mean for global security?
Tower: It’s increasingly clear that Myanmar is emerging as one of the most acute and rapidly escalating threats to global security due to the influence of transnational criminal groups that have forged deep relationships with the Myanmar army. These criminal actors, which are largely from China, have trafficked tens of thousands of people from ASEAN countries, China and beyond and forced them to perpetrate complex online frauds targeting a global population.
These industrial-scale scams are run out of remote compounds, largely under the protection of the Myanmar army’s border guard forces in Kokong on the China border and in Karen on the Thai border. Not only have these criminal enterprises resulted in tens of billion dollars in financial losses around the world, they also undermine international progress to address serious human rights violations such as human trafficking, modern slavery, forced labor and other forms of extremely malign criminality.
While the ASEAN summit touched on elements of this crisis, with ASEAN countries “expressing the need to expedite the process of addressing transnational crime,” it stopped short of condemning the Myanmar army’s role in enabling this activity and failed to put in place concrete plans for an ASEAN law enforcement response.
With ASEAN slow to respond, China has stepped up its security influence in Myanmar. Since May, China’s engagement with Myanmar has pushed for partnerships with the Myanmar army to address this activity — a sign that the issue could become a point of controversy in the relationship between China and the military junta.
Defying demands to crackdown, senior junta leaders such as Commerce Minister Aung Naing Oo publicly pushed back, arguing that the problem is “not so serious,” that is has been “embellished” by international media, and that China should focus on re-opening tourism. But the junta has also been quick to accept a Chinese police presence in major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, with Chinese police and security influence also increasing dramatically in Shan State, where China orchestrated a major cross-border police operation resulting in 269 arrests in early September.
It is likely that China will leverage its growing security presence in the country to shape the trajectory of the conflict and secure its geo-strategic interests. It is equally likely that the junta will try to leverage offers of Chinese police support to crackdown on the People’s Defense Forces and other resistance actors.
Both the Myanmar army’s ongoing involvement in the criminal activity, as well as growing Chinese security influence in Myanmar, should be sources of concern for ASEAN. One important step that the body might take is asserting leadership in cracking down on the criminal activity, and especially in holding the Myanmar army accountable for its direct role.