Guest Column

ASEAN and the Myanmar Quagmire: China’s Next Move

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 1 November 2021

The next three weeks will decide the fate of Myanmar as a member of the ASEAN family and the future trajectory of the grouping’s most important dialogue partner, China. At issue here is whether Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will be invited to attend the 30th anniversary ASEAN-China summit scheduled for Nov. 22. Whatever decision is taken by Beijing, it will herald a new chapter in ASEAN-China relations and Myanmar’s future.

After months of suffering negative reviews of its handling of the Myanmar situation, Brunei—the current chair of the regional bloc—has emerged triumphant from the ASEAN-related summits with plenty of praise for the full-powered attendance of East Asian leaders. ASEAN’s centrality has been strengthened, even though the bloc’s solidarity has been bruised.

Indeed, Naypyitaw miscalculated the overall ASEAN reaction, thinking that the chair would give in at the last minute. The letter from the Myanmar junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) challenging the chair’s decision was fruitless; the decision was made on Oct. 15 and all nine of Myanmar’s ASEAN co-members agreed. Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin asked the chair to put on record that his regime had reservations about this political decision.

At the end of the three-day summit, Brunei’s Sultan Hassan Bolkiah made it clear that ASEAN treats Myanmar as a family member and urged the country to comply with its five-point consensus without delay. Obviously, one immediate step the regime could take would be to welcome the special envoy from ASEAN, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, whose trip has been delayed for months. To show more progress, Naypyitaw should allow ASEAN and international humanitarian assistance to come in. At this juncture, Myanmar should be humble enough to learn from its mistake of thinking that a divided ASEAN would be susceptible to the junta’s manipulation.

With ASEAN centrality intact and the new ASEAN chair, Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen, starting its reign, the bloc will witness new dynamics in the interaction between the top echelon and the family members. Hun Sen has stated clearly that it was Myanmar’s own actions that forced ASEAN to adopt such a damaging decision. ASEAN’s solidarity has suffered, but its credibility as an organization able to tackle its own troubles is respected. It remains to be seen if Myanmar will be invited to attend the 13th Asia Europe Meeting hosted by Cambodia on Nov. 25-26.

Obviously, the Tatmadaw’s history shows it is not inclined to tolerate interference from outsiders. In short, the junta will do whatever it deems fit, regardless of outside pressure or concerns. However, at the end of its statement, the ASEAN chair said succinctly that Myanmar should be given “time and space” to deal with the challenges at home. But if the junta continues to show recalcitrance, both the time and space for Myanmar to act will shrink further, to the detriment of itself and ASEAN.

The litmus test will be the upcoming ASEAN-China Special Summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of relations. Unmistakably, the burden rests on the shoulders of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will chair the important summit for the first time. This will be the second summit for China within a year. Will China invite the SAC leader to the summit?

Judging from China’s response and comments in the past nine months, it is as clear as sunrise in the morning that Beijing is highly likely to follow the ASEAN decision at last week’s summit. There are no reasons to take a different path. On the first day of the summit a small diplomatic unpleasantry occurred regarding the decision to grant comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) status to China and Australia. Much to the chagrin of some ASEAN and dialogue partners, the release of the ASEAN-China summit statement, which should have followed the summit on the first day, was delayed by one day.

The absence of Myanmar, the new coordinator of ASEAN-China relations, has made the whole procedure complicated and troublesome. The chair had to take responsibility for replacing Myanmar. The new coordinator of ASEAN-Australia, Laos, had no problems rounding up its colleagues’ comments and agreements. Therefore, the statement on the ASEAN-Australia summit, which was held a day after the ASEAN-China summit, was released quickly right after the summit, ahead of the ASEAN-China statement, giving the impression that ASEAN granted CSP status to Australia first. That was not the case.

It was at the final press conference that Sultan Hassan Bolkiah announced that the establishment of CSP status for both China and Australia had been agreed. Although there were some reservations by ASEAN members, the chair decided to go ahead. In fact, ASEAN’s decision on the CSP at the prior senior officials’ meeting was that the bloc agreed “in principle,” meaning additional discussions are still needed. Deep down, ASEAN wanted to avoid giving the impression of favoritism to either China or Australia. Truth be told, both are premium dialogue partners.

All things considered, in the next three weeks, it is “do or die” for the Tatmadaw. If Naypyitaw continues the same unhealthy non-compliance with the ASEAN consensus, it will not be able to attend the upcoming summit or other internal forums. However, if there is tangible progress on the implementation of the ASEAN consensus, especially the long-awaited visit of the ASEAN special envoy, the host might be more willing to have the junta leader join the meeting. China knows full well that without a legitimate coordinator to facilitate this relationship at the most critical moment, the ASEAN-China friendship could see unexpected collateral damage.

China’s position on Myanmar is clear: it supports the overall ASEAN effort to bring about peace and a durable solution to Myanmar’s crisis. It has been widely reported that China has maintained rather balanced positions towards all conflicting parties, as it wants to see the return of regional peace and stability as soon as possible. But Beijing’s positions will be challenged if the internal situation in Myanmar deteriorates further.

In a nutshell, the red line has now been drawn between China and Myanmar. The ball is in Naypyitaw’s court. It is worthwhile repeating that without compliance on the ASEAN peace plan, which Beijing fully backs, the SAC leader will definitely be absent from the summit. No time to waste, no space to stand.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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