Will ASEAN focus on non-interference, AUKUS at summits starting Tuesday?

KUALA LUMPUR – There is high expectations on the three-day 38th and 39th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits that will begin on Tuesday, with all eyes focused on two of the hot button issues relating to the Southeast Asian region.

The first is ASEAN’s decision to exclude Myanmar’s junta chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing from the regional summit, that has raised questions whether the 54-year-old grouping is ready to rethink its principle of non-interference in the affairs of member states.

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Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia Thomas Daniel, however, doubted that ASEAN will re-evaluate the principle anytime soon, saying that without the principle ASEAN would not have lasted till now and grown to include all the 10 member states.

“Even countries that actively supported the move to exclude the junta from the summit are not going to discard the non-interference principle,” he told Bernama when contacted.

There are legitimate questions whether the principle of non-interference can actually be applied on this situation, as what is happening in Myanmar has an effect on ASEAN member states, particularly the influx of refugees to neighbouring countries who are also members of the grouping.

“There is a risk that the continuing violence and the country’s refusal to proceed with the Five-point Consensus might actually impact the quality of ASEAN’s engagement as a bloc with some dialogue partners and international organisations. So I don’t think the non-interference can really play that much here,” he said.

Since the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown by the junta on Feb 1, there has been internal unrest in Myanmar with nearly 1,000 civilians killed by security forces.

During the ASEAN foreign ministers online meeting on Oct 15, the regional bloc took a bold step to exclude Myanmar’s junta from the summits and also shot down the request by Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUJ), to join the summits. The grouping instead decided to invite a non-political representative to represent the country.

Thomas pointed out that the move was an important decision in a very long and complicated process to deal with Myanmar and described the step as an evolution of ASEAN.

“ASEAN has always attempted to dangle carrots, use inducements. I think right now, some member states feel that it is time for ASEAN to use the stick or to impose costs,” the expert in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies Programme explained further using the carrot and stick metaphor.

The second, on the trilateral security pact AUKUS, he said it remains to be seen whether the ASEAN’s chair, Brunei, can get all member states on the same page with regards to issuing a statement on it, noting that only Malaysia and Indonesia have voiced concerns that it could lead to a regional arms race.

Announced by United States (US) President Joe Biden on Sept 15, the new Indo-Pacific security alliance with United Kingdom and Australia will allow for greater sharing of defence capabilities — including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

“Now keep in mind that there were reports immediately after the announcement (of AUKUS) that Indonesia tried to rally ASEAN to issue a statement. However, it clearly didn’t work out, because there are very different viewpoints among member states on AUKUS,” he said.

Asked whether AUKUS is a blessing in disguise for littoral countries unhappy with China’s dominance in the South China Sea, Thomas agreed saying that some countries in the Asia-Pacific have issued statements welcoming the partnership.

“So I think this speaks for itself and speaks of regional perceptions of AUKUS but also of China as well,” he added.

He also suggested that ASEAN must maintain its centrality and truly remain unified to best further protect its interest in maintaining Southeast Asia as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).