21 April 2021
On Saturday, South-East Asian leaders are due to meet in Jakarta to discuss the Myanmar coup, which could be a historic test of credibility for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Since its founding in 1967, the ten-member group has survived decades of regional political turmoil – largely by adhering to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of neighbours. In recent years, it has focused on the economic integration of its members.
But ASEAN has begun to turn its ambitions outwards, claiming an increasingly central role in the broader region’s diplomatic architecture.
Saturday’s summit has been pushed by Indonesia – ASEAN’s largest economy and most populous country – with mixed support from Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, the group’s more democratically inclined members. Other members tend to see the coup as an internal matter and as a result may not send their top leaders to the talks.
The Australian government has effectively backed ASEAN’s efforts to make progress on the issue, opting not to impose the same sanctions that many other Western countries have placed on Myanmar.
The group has already demonstrated some diplomatic clout by apparently persuading Myanmar coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing to attend the summit. So far, coup leaders have refused to allow the United Nations special envoy on Myanmar into the country.
Because democracy is under pressure across the region, ASEAN may be inclined to support face-saving measures to reduce violence in Myanmar rather than taking steps to restore its limited democracy.
However, one benchmark for progress would be the appointment of a special representative who can negotiate with both the junta and an alternative national unity government, which was formed by democracy supporters and ethnic minorities last Friday. But ASEAN will need to overcome its aversion to interventionism to achieve this.
One thing seems clear: if ASEAN leaders are unable to agree on a strategy to prevent Myanmar’s failure as a state, the group’s burgeoning authority in the region will be called into question.
And Australia’s policy of giving ASEAN a significant role in its long-term regional strategy may be questioned as well.
Biden’s climate talks
On Thursday, Joe Biden will be joined by forty world leaders at an Earth Day climate summit, where leaders will review their climate change strategies.
By convening the summit, Biden has once again demonstrated his cooperative approach to international relations.
The virtual meeting is designed to put the United States back at the heart of emissions negotiations ahead of the UN’s Glasgow climate change conference in November – a process from which the Trump administration withdrew.
An agreement reached last weekend between the United States and China to cooperate on climate change has given Biden’s gathering extra impetus.
It was the first sign of cooperation between the two superpowers since Biden came to office, suggesting that climate forums could become a back channel for negotiations on other issues.
Ahead of the summit, Scott Morrison doubled down on his policy of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 through technological advances, instead of introducing new taxes or regulating fossil fuels. “This is where the road to net zero is being paved in Australia,” he said.
But Biden’s plan to build support for ambitious action at Glasgow – now perhaps in tandem with China – will place more pressure on the Morrison government to clarify its 2050 strategy.
Last Wednesday, Joe Biden announced he was removing American troops from Afghanistan, saying it was “time to end the forever war”. Hours later, Scott Morrison announced Australia’s withdrawal.
It is too early to judge whether decades of military action and nation-building will have an enduring positive impact on tribal and faction-riven Afghanistan.
The US president has long been sceptical of the deployment in Afghanistan, where interventions by colonial Britain and the Soviet Union have previously failed. In this sense, at least, he may be able to justify his risky decision to withdraw troops without an agreement between the Afghan government and the resurgent Taliban in place.
In announcing Australia’s withdrawal, Scott Morrison emphasised the country’s independent role in the intervention, talking up, for instance, how substantial aid had helped improve the status of Afghan women.
In reality, however, Australia joined the war as a down payment on the US alliance, allowed itself to be distracted from the original anti-terrorist mission by the US war in Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan on Biden’s schedule.
Australia now faces the prospect of new offshore deployments, which could include defending Taiwan from Chinese aggression or taking part in a complex peacekeeping mission in Myanmar.
Whatever comes, the lessons from Afghanistan – about identifying clear objectives, avoiding diversions, having a viable exit strategy and keeping an eye on national interests – must be remembered.