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Hong Kong CNN —
World leaders gather in Phnom Penh this weekend for the first in a series of international summits in Southeast Asia next week, where divisions among major powers and conflicts threaten to overshadow talks.
The first stop is the Cambodian capital, where leaders from across the Indo-Pacific will meet together with a summit of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), followed by a meeting of leaders from the group the 20 (G20) next week in Bali and Bali Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Bangkok.
The stacked diplomatic lineup will be a test of the international appetite for coordination on issues like climate change, global inflation and soaring food prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic – for the first time ever three events have been held in person since the outbreak began in 2020.
Sharp geopolitical divisions unseen in decades are looming across this political calendar as the war in Ukraine has radically altered Russia’s relationship with the West, the world’s two largest economies, the US and China, and the rest of the world continues to be embroiled in heightened competition is being pushed to choose a side.
Whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will appear during the diplomatic appointments remains uncertain. Both US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are expected to attend two of the summits in Southeast Asia – a region that has long been the zero point for interference between Beijing and Washington.
Xi is re-emerging on the world stage after years without travel during the pandemic after securing a norm-breaking third term, while Biden heads east fresh after a better-than-expected performance by his party in the US midterm elections. Both are expected to present their country as a stronger partner and more responsible global player than the other.
The two will meet in person Monday on the sidelines of the G20, their first face-to-face meeting since Biden’s election, the White House said Thursday. Beijing on Friday confirmed Xi’s travel plans to the G20 and APEC summits and said he would hold bilateral meetings with Biden and several other leaders.
Talks between the two could help stave off an escalation in tensions between the powers. But for leaders meeting during summits over the coming days, it will be a challenge to strike robust deals to solve global problems – which are already tough business at the best of times.
Even the most regional gathering, the ASEAN summit of Southeast Asian leaders, which kicked off in Phnom Penh on Friday and is set to look at strengthening regional stability as well as global challenges, will reflect fractured world politics, experts say.
But unlike the other big gatherings, which tend to focus on the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, ASEAN leaders step in this weekend under pressure to address a deepening conflict within their own bloc as Myanmar remains in turmoil and under military rule nearly two years after a brutal coup ousted the democratically elected government.
Differences among Southeast Asian countries in dealing with this conflict, compounded by their criss-crossing alliances with major powers — and the bloc’s reluctance to appear to side with the US and China — will affect how far the group can agree on and what it can accomplish at all summits, experts say.
“Normally this season would be very exciting — you have three major world summits in Southeast Asia — Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok.
“But (ASEAN) is very divided over Russian aggression, over the coup crisis in Myanmar, over China’s belligerence in the South China Sea and so on, and that means ASEAN is in bad shape,” he said.
In a United Nations vote last month, seven of the 10 ASEAN countries, including the representative of Myanmar, which is not backed by the ruling military, voted to condemn Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine, while Thailand, Laos and Vietnam abstained.
But ASEAN as a bloc has also taken a step to cement ties with Kyiv at this week’s events, Signing of a friendship and cooperation agreement with Ukraine in a ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday in Phnom Penh.
The bloc aims to use consensus among its states as its strength when bringing major world players to the table, for example at its adjacent East Asia Summit, which brings together 18 Indo-Pacific countries including Russia, China and the United States States and also meets this weekend.
“If ASEAN cannot put its house in order, if ASEAN cannot rein in a rogue member like the military regime of Myanmar, then ASEAN loses its meaning,” Pongsudhirak said. “On the other hand, if ASEAN is united, if it can muster commitment and determination… it can have a lot of appeal.”
Nearly two years since the military coup destroyed Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, human rights groups and observers say freedoms and rights in the country have deteriorated sharply; State executions have returned and the number of documented violent attacks by the ruling military junta on civilian infrastructure, including schools, has skyrocketed.
Scores of armed rebel groups have risen up against the ruling military junta, while millions of people have opposed their rule through forms of civil disobedience.
The weekend’s summits in Phnom Penh will bring the conflict back into international focus as Southeast Asian leaders try to find a way forward after Myanmar’s ruling junta failed to implement a peace plan negotiated in April last year. The country remains part of ASEAN, despite calls from rights groups for its expulsion, but has been prevented from sending political representatives to important events.
ASEAN foreign ministers made a last-ditch effort to craft a strategy late last month, with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who chaired the meeting, stressing in a subsequent statement that the challenges stemmed from “the complexity and difficulty of Myanmar’s decades — protracted ones.” Conflicts that have been exacerbated by the current political crisis.”
However, observers have little expectation of a harder line, at least while Cambodia chairs the bloc, and are already looking ahead to next year when Indonesia takes the lead in 2023.
Addressing the “ongoing crisis” will be a focus for Biden in talks with Southeast Asian leaders when he attends ASEAN summits over the weekend, the White House said Tuesday. Since the coup, the Biden administration has imposed targeted sanctions on the military regime and held meetings with the opposition government of national unity.
China, on the other hand, has shown support for the ruling military junta and is unlikely to back a crackdown, observers say. A months-long investigation into the situation in Myanmar, released last month by an international team of lawmakers, accused Russia and China of “providing both arms and legitimacy to an otherwise isolated regime.”
That, too, could affect results this weekend, according to political scientist Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Because of the Russian and (Chinese) support for the junta, any effort to find a solution through ASEAN would require some form of engagement with them, whether to garner support or even no opposition,” Chong said.
The crisis in Myanmar isn’t the only area where US-China divisions could loom over ASEAN summits, though issues like China’s aggression in the South China Sea — where Beijing has territorial claims that rival those of several Southeast Asian countries are in conflict – these could be of minor importance this year.
ASEAN will hold its usual side summits with both the US and China, respectively, and other countries, and China’s second-largest leader, pro-business Premier Li Keqiang, arrived earlier this week representing Xi.
As Southeast Asian leaders seek to bolster their economic stability, they are likely to raise concerns about the impact of US-China competition on the region, its trade and supply chains, such as after a US ban on semiconductor exports to China , according to Chong.
“ASEAN will try to find a way to manage all of this and will look to both Beijing and Washington to see what leeway they can offer,” he said.