Southeast Asia’s Summit Season

In November 2022, Southeast Asia entered the centre of global attention as the region hosted an unprecedented group of major international summits: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Related Summits in Cambodia on 10-13 November, the Group of Twenty (G20) Leaders’ Summit in Indonesia on 15-16 November and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Thailand on 18-19 November. Yet, as the summit season gathered the world’s leaders to foster stronger international cooperation, the gatherings were dominated by soaring diplomatic tensions and the growing strategic polarisation, consequently putting Southeast Asia’s international leadership to the test.

The Fine Art of Diplomacy

The summit season added a great amount of pressure to Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, firstly because these were the first major in-person summits to be held in Asia since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and secondly, the current geopolitical climate has made coordination very difficult. The main goal of the gatherings was to foster stronger cooperation and accelerate economic recovery. However, the pressing international crisis, most notably the war in Ukraine and the intensifying rivalry between the United States (US) and China, has been challenging such efforts and raised the question on how, and if, the three hosts would be able to navigate such power tensions. Consequently, the expectations for any diplomatic breakthrough were low. 

In the months leading up to the summits, much of the media coverage centred on the list of attendees, and most notably on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would attend. Some Western countries even threatened to boycott the events if the Russian leader decided to show up and urged the Southeast Asian leaders to withdraw their invitation to Moscow. Yet, the Southeast Asian trio stood their ground, arguing that it was neither in the interest of the region nor in their power to exclude certain countries. The trio even issued a joint statement that demonstrated their strong commitment to work with all partners and stakeholders to ensure cooperation in the region and beyond. Indonesia even went a step further when President Jokowi Widodo travelled to Ukraine and Russia to personally invite Putin and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – a political gamble that eventually paid off. 

In the end, Putin declined the invitations to the summits, sending Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Cambodia and Indonesia, and First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov to Thailand as representatives instead. The timing of the announcement, following a series of setbacks on the battlefield for Russia, suggested a way out for Putin and avoid any possible confrontation with the US and its allies. Despite the lack of any major breakthroughs, Phnom Penh, Jakarta and Bangkok deserve credits for pulling off this summit season, gathering the global leaders together in one place, without major disruptions. In addition, the three hosts managed to resist external pressure, navigate under complex geopolitical tensions and push through their individual agendas, thereby demonstrating the power of diplomacy – an achievement in itself. While the summits came with a mix of highlights, it made it clear that Russia has become increasingly isolated on the global stage. 

Cambodia’s ASEAN and Related Summits 

Southeast Asia’s month of summits started off with the 40th and 41st ASEAN and Related Summits, featuring the East Asia Summit and several key meetings with ASEAN’s dialogue partners in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Following the handover of the ASEAN chairmanship from Brunei on 28 October 2021, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sought to lead the ASEAN nations – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – under the spirit of  “Addressing Challenges Together” (ASEAN A.C.T). 

The growing frustration over Myanmar loomed large over the ASEAN gathering. Following the military coup in February 2021, military Junta officials have been excluded from high-level meetings such as this year’s summit. While the international community would have hoped for bolder and stronger actions, the ASEAN member states agreed to hold Myanmar to a specific timeline to comply with the group’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan. Furthermore, Timor-Leste was admitted “in principle” as the 11th member of ASEAN, marking a significant milestone as it became the first new addition to the regional grouping since Cambodia in 1999. This allows the half island-nation to participate in all high-level meetings until receiving the status of official member, which is expected at next year’s summit, given that all requirements have been fulfilled. 

For US President Joe Biden, the related summits yielded an opportunity to reassure the region’s leaders that Washington is committed and willing to increase its engagement with ASEAN. In Cambodia, the leaders agreed to elevate the US-ASEAN relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), representing the highest level of relations the Southeast Asian nations hold with external partners. This now puts Washington alongside Beijing, New Delhi and Canberra. Biden also stressed the importance of a rules-based order in an Indo-Pacific region that is free and open, resilient and secure. In addition, he advocated better freedom of navigation in the East China Sea and South China Sea – a message widely interpreted as a signal towards China. Despite the efforts, Joe Biden’s attempt to convince the ASEAN leaders to push back against Beijing failed. China is ASEAN’s largest investment and trading partner, which is not expected to change any time soon, as reflected in their latest China-ASEAN Summit, where the leaders reaffirmed their partnership and pledged to further deepen relations across various areas. Most notably, China —represented by Premier Li Kequiang— reinforced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia, confirming Beijing’s leading economic role in the region and their strong long-standing partnership.  

Other key outcomes in Cambodia were the establishment of an improved Free Trade Pact between ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand, and perhaps most significantly, the decision to have Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), allowing the country to become ASEAN’s 50th official partner. 

Cambodia’s chairmanship concluded with the East Asia Summit, a forum bringing together ASEAN and eight of its neighbours: the US, China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. As the summit failed to release a joint statement following a disagreement between the US and Russia on the language over Ukraine, the outcome was instead reflected in a statement issued by the Cambodian Chairman. According to the statement “most of the participating countries expressed their condemnation over the aggression against Ukraine” and called for an immediate ceasefire. It also noted that “the root cause of the situation in Ukraine should also be addressed and the legitimate concerns of all countries must be taken into consideration”, most likely an attempt to avoid offending Russia. Nevertheless, this reinforced the belief that consensus was impossible to reach, setting the tone for the following summits. 

At the end of the summits, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen handed over the ASEAN chairmanship to Indonesia’s President Widodo, who will steer the bloc throughout 2023 under the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. As reported by the Strait Times, President Widodo stated that ASEAN must “not be a proxy (for) any powers” and that “economic growth has and will always be the story of ASEAN, confirming economic interests to prevail over geopolitical ones. From Phnom Penh, the Indonesian President headed to Bali to get ready for one of his biggest tasks to date: to lead the grouping of the world’s largest and emerging economies, the G20. 

Indonesia’s G20 Presidency: Adding Significance To The Season

While the ASEAN and its Related Summits are held on a rotational annual basis and the APEC gathering takes place in the region every other year, the G20 Bali Summit was a rare occurrence because 1) Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian member, and 2) this was the country’s first time hosting the G20. As such, it illustrated an even bigger summit season than usual. 

One of the biggest highlights of this summit season was the bilateral meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, who met face-to-face for the first time since Biden took office in January 2021. Both leaders came to Bali with added confidence, following domestic political successes, given Joe Biden’s win at the US midterm election and Xi Jinping securing an unprecedented third term. The two leaders agreed to communicate on a regular basis, showing the region, and the world, they can still hold talks despite their differences. The bilateral meeting also suggested that the tensions, built up after Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, have eased to some degree, or at least enough for the two superpowers to be willing to get US-China relations going again. 

As the Ukraine war reverberated across the globe, throwing global supply chains into chaos and triggering political and economic instability, Indonesia’s G20 Presidency was described to be perhaps the most challenging one yet. Ahead of the Bali Summit, President Widodo argued that the G20 was an economic forum and should not be politicised by the Ukraine war, further urging the participants to direct their attention on the economic recovery – reflecting his commitment to the agenda of his G20 Presidency “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”. In his opening remarks at the summit, the Indonesian President pointed out that the G20 must be “the catalyst for inclusive economic recovery”. Yet, the Ukraine war overshadowed the gathering. 

To everyone’s surprise, the gathering concluded with a G20 Leaders’ Declaration, in which President Widodo managed to get the leaders to agree to disagree on Ukraine – a task that seemed impossible just days earlier. The choice of language was restrained, stating that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”, but also noted that “there were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions” – a telling sign of the fault-lines within the grouping. It further referred to the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) resolution of 2 March 2022, which deplores Russia’s actions in the strongest terms. In response to Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons, the declaration stated that “the use or threat to use nuclear weapons is inadmissible”. However, in an attempt to not politicise the summit, it also acknowledged that “the G20 is not the forum to resolve security issues”, while recognising that “security issues can have significant consequences for the global economy”. The fact that this made it into the final statement is a possible indication that almost everyone, if not all, agreed on this point.

It would be fair to say that the G20 Bali summit outperformed the expectations. The generated momentum is likely to benefit Indonesia as it takes the driving-seat of ASEAN in 2023. 

From Bali To Bangkok

Southeast Asia’s summit season concluded in Thailand with the APEC Leaders’ Summit, a forum aimed at accelerating economic integration in the Asia-Pacific. Joe Biden’s absence was much felt, and perhaps even somewhat disappointing, especially for the Thai government. Ahead of the APEC summit, Thailand seemed eager to have Putin attend the summit, following Biden’s announcement to send US Vice President Kamala Harris instead. Thailand’s choice to abstain from voting on the UNGA resolution on 12 October 2022, calling on member states to not recognise Russia’s annexation of the four Ukrainian territories, arguably was an effort on behalf of the Thai government to avoid offending the Russian leader, hoping he would attend. Furthermore, unlike Cambodia and Indonesia, Thailand did not invite President Zelenskyy, a move widely interpreted as yet another attempt to persuade the Russian leader to travel to Bangkok. 

On the other hand, the French President Emmanuel Macron attended the gathering as a special guest, despite not being a member of the international forum. This marked another significant highlight of the season as France became the first and only European country to be invited and to attend, allowing the French President to push forward his Indo-Pacific ambitions and gain more international clout in the region.

After a week dominated by geopolitical rivalry, the members were able to issue a Leader’s Declaration, yet another unexpected success, in which the leaders first and foremost agreed to boost trade and pursue bolder actions against the emerging economic challenges. Echoing the G20 Bali statement, the document included an identical paragraph on Ukraine, stating that most of the APEC members condemned the war but again noted that there were other views on the situation. 

Reinforcing The Non-Alignment Movement 

Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, with their distinctive styles of leadership and diplomatic skills, demonstrated the region’s desire to remain non-aligned in the midst of growing geopolitical tensions. The summits showed that the Southeast Asian countries will not exclude Moscow by default or push back against Beijing simply because the US and its allies would like them to do so. Instead, the ASEAN leaders will seek to navigate a middle path, centred on their national and regional interests. In this context, ASEAN’s strategic relationships with external partners will be primarily determined by what these powers can offer the region, most notably within the economic sphere. 

Overall the summits resulted in a diplomatic setback for Russia, following the critical language over the situation in Ukraine in all statements – more or less a victory for Europe. Yet, at the first-ever EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit on 14 December 2022 in Brussels, celebrating 45 years of diplomatic relations, the European leaders made one last push trying to persuade the ASEAN leaders to side with them and to condemn Russia. Once again, ASEAN made it clear that the region remains committed to its own identity and strategic interests. 
As the EU seeks to present itself as a reliable partner to the region, it must ensure that its relationship with ASEAN is based on mutual recognition and equal partnership. This was clearly reflected in President Widodo’s speech in Brussels, where he insisted that there can no longer be one side that dictates over another of what is better, and further noted that Europe needs to treat the region as its equal. European leaders must understand and accept that the Southeast Asian nations do not see the world through the same “black and white” lens and may have different interests and approaches to deal with global affairs. In the end, Southeast Asia’s growing confidence demonstrates that any attempt to force or control the region is a waste of time. ASEAN’s growing strategic importance is eminent and the region has confirmed that it is there to stay at the top of the international agenda. It is now up to the EU and its leaders to live up to their promises, seek meaningful engagement with Southeast Asia and acknowledge them as equal partners.

Author: Simmi Saini, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Pixabay