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Economics and hotspots Myanmar and Ukraine on agenda of US-ASEAN Summit final day

Vice President Kamala Harris offered Southeast Asian leaders maritime security assistance to address “threats to international rules and norms” as the top U.S. diplomat sought deeper ties with regional heavyweight Indonesia and budding partner Vietnam on Friday, the final day of a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.

Hosting the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a working lunch, Harris stressed the security concerns many of the countries share over aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea, where several of the 10 ASEAN states have territorial disputes with Beijing.

“Our administration recognizes the vital strategic importance of your region, a role that will only grow with time. And we recognize ASEAN’s centrality in the region’s architecture,” she told the gathering at the State Department in Washington.

“As an Indo-Pacific nation, the United States will be present and continue to be engaged in Southeast Asia for generations to come,” Harris said, adding that with a shared vision for the region, “together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms.”

“We stand with our allies and partners in defending the maritime rules-based order which includes freedom of navigation and international law,” she said, without mentioning China.

To underscore U.S. commitment, Harris said the U.S. will provide $60 million in new regional maritime security assistance led by the U.S. Coast Guard, and will deploy a cutter as a training platform and will send technical experts to help build capacity in the region.

That offer followed President Joe Biden commitment at the summit’s opening dinner Thursday to spend U.S. $150 million on COVID-19 prevention, security, and infrastructure in Southeast Asia as part of a package his administration hopes will counter China’s extensive influence in the region.

A U.S. Coast Guard ship will also be deployed to the region to patrol waters ASEAN nations say are illegally fished by Chinese vessels.

In bilateral meetings Friday with Indonesia and Vietnam, ASEAN’s most populous nations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed deepening partnership in security and stronger economic ties.

The second U.S.-ASEAN summit to be held in the United States, following an inaugural gathering in California in 2016, “puts an emphasis on the great importance that we attach, the United States attaches to ASEAN, our relationship, ASEAN centrality,” Blinken told Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

“We are working together across the board to advance a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.  We’re working to strengthen economic ties among countries in the region,” he said at the State Department.

U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, May 12, 2022. Credit: AFP.
U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, May 12, 2022. Credit: AFP.

‘Dreadful humanitarian crisis’ in Ukraine

Retno welcomed “intensified communication and cooperation between our two countries,” and said “we should use this strategic partnership also to contribute to the peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

Departing with a general reticence about discussing the war in Ukraine among of ASEAN states–which include Russia-friendly Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam–the Indonesia minister said: “Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible.”

Retro’s remarks echoed those made to U.S. lawmakers Thursday by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who noted the Ukraine war’s impact on the global economy, including food and energy price surges.

“The Ukrainian war has led to a dreadful humanitarian crisis that affects the global economy,” he said, according to remarks released by his cabinet.

Blinken told Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh that Washington and Hanoi are “now the strongest of partners, with a shared vision for security in the region we share and for the strongest possible economic ties.”

The crisis following the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, which was a top focus of Thursday’s meetings on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, was at the fore of Blinken’s meeting with Cambodia Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who also serves as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar.

“We’re working very closely together as partners to try to advance a shared vision for the region, including regional security,” said Blinken. Cambodia is this year’s rotating ASEAN chair.

“And of course, we welcome the leadership role that you’re playing at ASEAN on a number of issues, including hopefully working to restore the democratic path of Myanmar,” Blinken added.

Absent but high on the agenda

Myanmar was one of only two ASEAN countries whose rulers were not at the summit.

The Philippines is being represented by its foreign minister as it wraps up a presidential election this week, while Myanmar’s junta chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was barred from the summit amid a brutal crackdown on opponents of his military regime that rights groups say has claimed the lives of at least 1,835 civilians.

While absent in Washington, the country the U.S. still officially calls Burma was much on the agenda of its fellow ASEAN members Thursday.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah called out junta officials in a series of tweets for failing to honor their commitment to end violence in the country, while U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held a meeting with Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of the shadow National Unity Government in Myanmar.

“The deputy secretary highlighted that the United States would continue to work closely with ASEAN and other partners in pressing for a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Burma,” according to a statement by State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

“They also condemned the escalating regime violence that has led to a humanitarian crisis and called for unhindered humanitarian access to assist all those in need in Burma.”

In Naypyidaw, RFA’s Myanmar Service asked military junta spokesman Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun for comments but he did not respond.

But the head of a think tank made up of former military officers who often reflects the regime’s hardline views called the U.S. meeting with the parallel administration “unethical.”

“To put it bluntly, it’s an unethical act by a superpower showing disrespect to another country,” said Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies.

The State Administrative Council, as the junta formally calls itself, “is currently holding the three branches of power in Myanmar,” he said.

“As it will move on to deliver its promises in time, no matter what the West may say or push or do, it will follow its own road map,” Thein Tun Oo.