Myanmar spiralling ‘from bad to worse, to horrific’

In 2022, three ASEAN countries took over the presidency of important regional and global dialogue structures. For the first time in history, Indonesia chaired the G20, Thailand assumed the chair of APEC and Cambodia chaired ASEAN. 2022 was set to be one for ASEAN leadership, charting avenues for an effective post-COVID recovery, especially as positive economic momentum in Southeast Asian nations gave cause for cautious optimism.

These considerations guided Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia in setting their Chairmanship agendas. High on the G20 agenda, Indonesia suggested discussing the global health architecture and ways to ensure sustainable energy transition and digital transformation. Thailand urged APEC attendees to focus on the Asia-Pacific post-industrial recovery, while Cambodia crafted a beautiful slogan to unite countries in the region to tackle new challenges: ASEAN ACT (tackling challenges together).

However, the expected trajectories of the three presidencies were interrupted by two synchronously escalating conflicts, which Southeast Asia had until then tended to perceive as a background problem for the institutions of the region. The transition of the Ukraine conflict into a hot phase in February 2022 led to an almost complete detachment – ​​both political and economic – of Russia from the US and the EU, as well as Japan, partially South Korea and Singapore, which chose to join under sanctions pressure. With the general psychological perception of the conflict as geographically remote from Southeast Asia, its impact on the daily economic life of the region’s nations has manifested itself in the form of rising inflation and fears over food and energy security. In addition, they have become a determining factor in the activities of the Presidency countries in organizing the institutional work of the G20, APEC and ASEAN-centric mechanisms.

The second challenge was a sharp escalation in US-China tensions, exacerbated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2-3, 2022, followed by a visit by US congressmen two weeks later became. The previous visit by such a senior American politician was a quarter of a century ago when House Speaker Newt Gingrich made such a trip. Contradictions between Washington and Beijing used to bring about an uncomfortable, albeit temporary and relatively manageable, dichotomy in the activities of regional institutions – today their influence on the above-mentioned structures and on the G20 threatens to qualitatively reach a new level for the first time.

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The stability of the regional situation is also undermined by an “internal challenge”, namely the ongoing political tensions in Myanmar, where a military coup took place in February 2021. In addition to the intra-regional dimension, the situation has a global aspect, as ASEAN’s main dialogue partners (aka G20 participants) – the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India, the EU and the United Kingdom – on the new government in Myanmar take diametrically opposed positions.

Under these circumstances, the effectiveness of ASEAN’s institutional balance – now a hallmark of the association, which brings together small and medium-sized states seeking to interact on an equal footing with much larger international actors – has been somewhat hampered. In the coming months before the autumn round of the G20, APEC and ASEAN summits, the presidency countries will obviously have to seriously reconsider the forms and methods of this balancing act.

Obviously, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia want to keep these institutions inclusive, as it is this inclusiveness that distinguishes them from the many multilateral mechanisms established by Western countries. In the 1990s and 2000s, an inclusive approach helped ASEAN countries form a network of regional institutions anchored in the association, greatly enhancing their international standing and facilitating a favorable economic environment for member states’ development.

The May 2022 declaration by the three Presiding countries that they do not want to turn multilateral structures into an arena of international disputes and are open to cooperation with all partners was in this spirit of inclusion. Seriously pressured by the US and EU, they all refused to exclude Russia from the G20, APEC and ASEAN-centric formats. As a result, despite persistent calls from Western countries not to invite Russian representatives, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov attended the July 2022 G20 ministerial meeting in Bali, which ended without a final communiqué, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended a meeting with his counterparts from the G20 countries, which also took place in Bali in July, and the August meeting of foreign ministers of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on the sidelines of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Summit.

Therefore, it is becoming increasingly urgent for the Presiding States to work in a new, much more conflictual environment than before, making it virtually impossible to reach consensus on the issues at hand. However, the G20, ASEAN-centric institutions and APEC make consensus-based decisions. Before that, there were few precedents when ASEAN and APEC were temporarily paralyzed by the impact of US-China tensions and a lack of consensus on the summits’ final communiqués. For example, Cambodia’s previous ASEAN presidency in 2012 and the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea in 2018.

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Despite all the fears that disputes between great powers would paralyze multilateral institutions, the three presidency countries still seem to have shown their own ambitions to contribute to at least a limited pacification of conflict situations in relations between Russia and the West and between China and the USA. This is particularly evidenced by the diplomatic efforts of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who visited both Ukraine and the Russian Federation in June 2022. Indonesia has so far consistently decided not to join the sanctions against Russia, and rejected the idea of ​​introducing a threshold on Russian oil prices, actively promoted by the United States, because the country does not believe that this will lead to a significant reduction in international tensions and could help ensure energy security. Thailand, which will celebrate the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Russia in 2022, and Cambodia are taking a cautious approach to the sanctions issue. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in May 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the lifting of all sanctions against Russia, as their effect had and recovered the countries that imposed them, and especially developing countries unrelated to the conflict barely started to recover from the pandemic.

In a broader context, this year essentially tests Asian multilateralism. In the new international context, the question inevitably arises as to whether Asian countries can assert their right to direct regional and sometimes global processes – in deeds rather than words. This takes on a particular ring in the context of the discussion unfolding in the Western scholarly and expert community about the role of multilateral institutions in “integrating” such “deviant” countries like Russia and China (the list goes on) into the “rules-based world order “. Notable in this discussion is the division of multilateral institutions into those that operate within this “order” and those that operate outside it. [1] The multi-stakeholder formats created by Russia and China (e.g. the SCO) are primarily seen as the latter, but other non-Western organizations may soon find themselves in this group as well.

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The fact that the US views Asian, especially ASEAN-centric, institutions as structures with limited functionality became clear with the start of the establishment of Quad-like multilateral groups such as Quad+ and AUKUS. This perception stemmed from the failure of ASEAN, which Western countries saw in the 1990s and 2000s as the organization responsible for ensuring China’s regional socialization. Accordingly, from the US perspective, the activities of the ASEAN-centric institutions would have to be supplemented by “more effective” formats. This is the point of numerous assurances from US state and defense officials that the minilateral formats complement ASEAN-centric formats and enhance regional security and are not inconsistent with their activities.

2022 also saw the first attempts to torpedo ASEAN-centric institutions from within. In July 2022, Australia, the United States and New Zealand boycotted a meeting of the ASEAN Working Group of Defense Ministers and Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus) chaired by Myanmar and Russia under the pretext of the Ukraine conflict and the situation in Myanmar. So far, there have been no instances of a full-scale boycott of G20, APEC and broader ASEAN events involving Russia, but some precedents that have already emerged appear aimed at challenging Moscow’s ability to make meaningful contributions to ASEAN-centric ones institutions to perform and the association’s ability to respond appropriately to new challenges.

At the same time, Russia has a direct interest in Asian multilateralism standing up to the test of strength. First, with significant obstacles to cooperation with many multilateral structures, including those within the UN, the Asian platforms are becoming the main multilateral formats for their diplomatic activities alongside the SCO and the BRICS. Second, despite the bulkiness and sometimes clumsiness of Asian multi-stakeholder institutions, they are an example of genuine consideration of the national interests of states with a wide variety of political and economic structures. Western nations have yet to gain this valuable experience.

[1] Goddard S. The Outsiders: How the International System Can Still Check China and Russia // Foreign Affairs, May/Jun 2022, Vol. 101, Issue 1. pp. 28–39.

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