BANGKOK - Foreign ministers of Southeast Asian countries, as well as those from the U.S., China and other nations, are gathering in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw this week for two key meetings, including the 27-member regional security forum.
The meetings in Myanmar, also known as Burma come as ASEAN continues preparations to launch its integrated economic community next year, which would ease restrictions on trade and labor across borders.
While much of the change in the region is market driven, there are contentious political issues dividing ASEAN members.
The South China Sea dispute is high on the agenda at all of the association's major meetings this year.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, says China's temporary positioning this year of an oil platform in waters also claimed by Vietnam has further increased tension in the region.
"China as a large and powerful nation has a special responsibility to show restraint. There is a big footprint that comes with military strength and it warrants setting your foot very, very carefully and treading very gingerly when you are in a sensitive area," said Russel.
Professor Panitan Wattanayagorn, a close observer of ASEAN matters, cautions progress on such major issues will remain slow due to historical legacies.
“This region is, of course, full of, in the past, suspicious intents, lack of trust, especially in terms of military capability, especially in terms of the growth of the big powers. The region has gone through so many decades of turmoil during the colonial period, during the cold war period," said Wattanayagorn.
Since the May 22nd coup Thailand has faced diplomatic pressure from the West, including cuts in military assistance, for suspending democracy. That has triggered concern among ASEAN members and others that, as a result, Bangkok could be heading towards a closer relationship with Beijing.
“The Thai representatives need to assure that that will not be the case, that there will be a more balanced approach, getting engaged with all countries, like Myanmar, like Cambodia. Like most of the rest of the ASEAN members, they have to be more well-rounded, they have to be more multi-dimensional," said Wattanayagorn.
An unprecedented dimension this year is Myanmar chairing ASEAN meetings for the first time.
But as Myanmar deals with communal violence and insurgencies while transitioning away from absolute military rule, there is skepticism among some in ASEAN on whether it can provide effective leadership.
But the bar may not be that high. ASEAN, founded in 1967, is driven by the principle of not criticizing its members’ affairs.
That has led to outcomes that have earned little applause - vague consensus on critical issues, leading to questions about ASEAN’s relevancy in a fast-changing world.