For decades, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) struggled on two delicate political issues threatening to break the bloc’s cohesion and unity.
The first issue is internal to Asean’s organization but it has since put into question the bloc’s relevance as the political situation remained unresolved in Myanmar.
The second is more problematic because it involves an outside power, China, which is attempting to dominate not only the region and global affairs as it steadily rose as an economic and military power.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea. Four Asean states also have conflicting claims on the strategic waterway where about $3 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass every year.
On the first issue, Asean leaders agreed to push Myanmar’s generals to restore normalcy in the country in April 2021, two months after a coup that toppled the short-lived civilian government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Violence escalated as Myanmar’s military forces stepped up operations against various separatist forces, including the stateless Rohingya Muslims.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei have expressed serious concerns over Myanmar’s brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims, which has forced thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh and escape by boats to Indonesia and Malaysia.
It was a big humanitarian disaster, the likes of which was last seen in 1975 when the Communists won in the Vietnam War, which forced tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese to flee by perilous boat trips across the South China Sea and by dangerous treks through minefields along the borders to neighboring Thailand.
Meeting at a sleepy fishing town of Labuan Bajo in eastern Indonesia in early May, Asean leaders were in a quandary over what they will do to force Myanmar generals to free Suu Kyi and call an election to restore political normalcy.
The generals had promised to comply with the 5-point consensus agreement with Asean leaders but continued to ignore them.
The sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries appeared to be not working because there were other countries, like China, who continued to support Myanmar’s generals.
China has strategic interests in Myanmar. It could use the country to project military power in the Indian Ocean, challenging the mighty Indian Navy’s long dominance in the region.
It could also use Myanmar to pipe oil to Chima from the Bay of Bengal, cutting the long trips from the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.
China has every reason to keep close relations with Myanmar, making it difficult for the United States, Japan, other Western states and Asean to push the generals to allow democracy to work in Myanmar.
Asean leaders cannot expel Myanmar but it cannot go on forever in not inviting the generals to summits and other politically important meetings.
Before accepting Myanmar to Asean in 1997, its military rulers have been a problem since the 1962 coup. There was a brief period in 1988 when the generals ruled again until 2011, when the junta was dissolved and Suu Kyi’s party took power.
A decade later, the generals seized power once more but time can only tell when they will hand over power to the civilians.
The February 2021 coup tarnished Asean’s reputation, threatening the bloc’s unity and cohesion. It has since become a sore thumb in the bloc’s annual meetings.
China’s link with Myanmar’s problem is not a coincidence. It has been a thorn on Asean’s side for a long time since 1988 when China seized from Vietnam the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea after a brief naval battle.
Less than a decade later, it occupied Mischief Reef and later expanded its occupied features to man-made islands, turning them into military fortresses with airfields and secured ports.
Smaller and weaker states who have overlapping claims in the South China Sea rushed to draft a code of conduct to de-escalate tension in the disputed waters, enlisting the rest of the Southeast Asian countries.
But China has been delaying its assent to a formal and legally binding Code of Conduct. It has been two decades since China and Asean agreed on a political document, the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
It is maybe true the DOC has prevented China and other claimant-states from occupying uninhabited features in the South China Sea but China’s coercive and unilateral acts have been increasing in the disputed area to aggressively assert its claims.
China’s gray-zone tactics, like deploying militia vessels such as steel-hulled white ships to ram smaller fishing vessels and survey ships, are clear measures to sidestep the DOC.
The expansion of Chinese-occupied features into artificial islands also violated in principle the DOC. These developments point to a need to conclude a formal Code of Conduct to regulate what claimant-states can do and cannot do to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.
China has been delaying the Code of Conduct. It has been introducing provisions that will make the Code restrictive to outside powers, preventing Asean from conducting drills with the United States.
Perhaps, China will not sign a Code of Conduct unless it has gained full control of the South China Sea.
These are the two unresolved issues that Asean states have to deal with for the years to come.
There are other geopolitical issues, like the Korean peninsula situation, Ukraine, and the Middle East that could affect Asean’s interests as well.
But Myanmar and the South China Sea are close to home and may make or break Asean.