Myanmar's prolonged civil strife, tensions in the disputed South China Sea, and concern over an arms buildup in the region are expected to dominate the agenda when Southeast Asia's top diplomats gather for talks this week in Indonesia.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.-China rivalry will also be under the spotlight as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang participate as dialogue partners of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers meeting in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui will not attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual security meeting, Indonesian Foreign Ministry official Sidharto Suryodipuro told a news conference on Monday, without elaborating.
It's also unclear who among the key figures in the world's most intractable conflicts will meet on the sidelines of the group's ministerial meetings.
The top diplomats of ASEAN, which consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, will meet Tuesday and Wednesday before their Asian and Western counterparts join them in discussions on Thursday and Friday.
Group's principles tested
Founded in 1967, the often-unwieldy collective of democracies, autocracies and monarchies has been held together for decades by bedrock principles of non-interference in each other's domestic affairs and consensus-based decision-making. But that approach has also prevented the 10-nation bloc from dealing swiftly with crises that spill across borders.
ASEAN's principles have been tested since Myanmar's army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 and plunged the country into deadly chaos.
More than 3,750 civilians, including pro-democracy activists, have been killed by security forces and nearly 24,000 arrested since the military takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group that keeps tallies of such arrests and casualties.
Myanmar's military government has largely ignored a five-point plan by ASEAN heads of state that includes an immediate end to the violence and dialogue among all contending parties. That prompted the regional group to take an unprecedented punitive step by barring Myanmar's military leaders from its top-level gatherings, including the ministerial meetings, that Indonesia will host.
Since assuming ASEAN's rotating chairmanship this year, Indonesia has initiated some 110 meetings with groups in Myanmar and provided humanitarian aid to build trust, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said, adding that continuing violence would hurt efforts to return the nation to normalcy within ASEAN.
"ASEAN is still very concerned about the increasing use of violence in Myanmar which has resulted in civilian casualties and the destruction of public facilities," Retno told a news conference on Friday. "This must stop immediately."
Two months ago, an aid convoy with Indonesian and Singaporean embassy representatives on an ASEAN mission to provide help to displaced people came under fire from unknown attackers in a road ambush in Myanmar's eastern Shan State. A security team returned fire and a security vehicle was damaged, but no one in the convoy was injured, state-run television MRTV reported.
ASEAN is under international pressure to effectively address the crisis in Myanmar. But ASEAN members appear divided over how to proceed, with some recommending an easing of punitive actions aimed at isolating Myanmar's generals and inviting its top diplomat and officials back to the high-profile summit meetings.
Retno stressed the group would continue to focus on enforcing the ASEAN leaders' five-point plan.
A draft of a post-meeting communique to be issued by the ASEAN foreign ministers remained blank on Myanmar, reflecting the difficulty of reaching agreement on the issue. Their concerns over other contentious issues, such as the South China Sea disputes, were included in the draft, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar, director of the Jakarta-based Habibie Center think tank, said the situation in Myanmar could become a long-term problem like the South China Sea disputes given ASEAN's limited capacity to solve it. The bloc, however, should try to convince Myanmar's military government that it has better options, she said.
"It's recalcitrant. Its determination to hang on to power is not going to be sustainable because it's only going to incite conflicts," Anwar told the AP.
Myanmar is scheduled next year to assume the role of coordinating ASEAN's engagements with the European Union. But the E.U., which has imposed sanctions on the military government, has opposed such a role for Myanmar, two Southeast Asian diplomats told the AP on condition of anonymity because they lack authority to discuss the issue publicly.
A call for self-restraint
On the South China Sea conflicts, ASEAN foreign ministers are expected to renew a call for self-restraint "in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability," according to the draft communique, repeating language used in previous statements that does not name China.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have been embroiled in long-simmering territorial conflicts with China and Taiwan for decades. ASEAN and China have been negotiating a non-aggression pact that aims to prevent an escalation of the disputes, but the talks have faced years of delay.
The disputed waters have emerged as a delicate front in the rivalry between China and the United States.
Washington has challenged Beijing's expansive territorial claims and regularly deploys warships and fighter jets in what it calls freedom of navigation and overflight patrols that have incensed China.
Other Western and European nations have deployed navy ships on occasional patrols in the busy waterway, where a bulk of the world's trade transits, with similar calls for unimpeded commerce and mobility.
China's increasingly aggressive actions have prompted other countries to boost their territorial defenses.
"We expressed concern about the growing arms race and naval power projection in the region, which could lead to miscalculation, increased tensions, and may undermine regional peace, security, and stability," the ASEAN foreign ministers said without elaborating in their draft communique, whose wording is still subject to negotiations and could change.
Anwar said there's no solution in sight for the South China Sea disputes and ASEAN could only take steps to help prevent full-blown conflict.
"We hope that China will give up this claim, but don't hold your breath on that," she said.