ASEAN Summit Agenda: China, Myanmar in Spotlight

Southeast Asian leaders are set to convene in Australia for a rare ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, marking 50 years since Australia became the first official partner of the Asian bloc.

The summit is expected to address China’s assertiveness and the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

East Timor’s leader has been invited as an official ASEAN observer, and Australian Prime Anthony Albanese has invited his New Zealand counterpart to Melbourne to meet regional leaders.

Australia has hosted ASEAN leaders once before in Sydney in 2018, calling for a code of conduct covering the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Australia and the Philippines conducted joint sea and air patrols in the South China Sea for the first time in November last year.

Australia proposed to ASEAN members to declare their support for the 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague in favor of the Philippines that invalidated Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China has rejected ASEAN’s ruling on territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and China’s assertive stance in the South China Sea and violence in Myanmar topped a January meeting in Laos.

International Crisis Group’s Asia program deputy director Huong Le Thu said ASEAN has always been divided over how to approach China, with each member nation maintaining a unique bilateral relationship with the economic giant.

The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar challenges ASEAN’s credibility as an organization, questioning why the region’s governments gather and the purpose of the intergovernmental institution if it cannot act on the internal crisis affecting its own organization and the region.

Around 200 protesters, mainly from the Myanmar diaspora, demonstrated outside the ASEAN summit demanding the restoration of democracy in Myanmar and that ASEAN not engage with the country’s military leaders. Australia, as the summit host, is focused on maritime cooperation, economic ties, climate change, and clean energy.

Executive director of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defense Dialogue think tank, Melissa Conley Tyler, expects leaders to focus on what they share in common rather than their differences on issues such as China and Myanmar.

The focus will be positive, future-oriented, and focused on building excitement and momentum. ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, with a combined population of over 650 million and a GDP of over $3 trillion.

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