(Bloomberg) — World leaders discussed the fraying geopolitical landscape at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Cambodia, covering everything from Russia’s war in Ukraine and the escalating conflict in Myanmar to rising food prices.
This is the first gathering of leaders ahead of President Joe Biden’s first in-person meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia. It will be followed by the leaders’ meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bangkok.
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Here are the key takeaways from Asean:
No Joint Statement
Russia and the US failed to agree on language for a joint statement following an 18-nation summit in Cambodia, making it unlikely the Group Of 20 countries will reach a consensus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put the blame on the US and its allies, saying on Sunday they “insisted on absolutely unacceptable language regarding the situation in Ukraine.”
The context: Growing geopolitical tensions is making it harder for countries to find the middle ground on much of anything these days. While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s absence from all the meetings in Southeast Asia may help lower the temperature on differences between the US and China over Ukraine to some extent, there are still hot-button issues like Taiwan, South China Sea and escalating competition over semiconductor technology.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo aired his country’s proposal that the Myanmar junta be excluded from all Asean meetings in the future until it shows progress in a so-called five-point consensus that includes stopping violence and committing to elections. Asean later came out with a more neutral statement to say it will review Myanmar’s representation at Asean meetings “if the situation so requires.”
The context: Asean has come under pressure from the US and its allies to convince the junta to end the political instability since coup leader Min Aung Hlaing seized control from the civilian government last year. With the latest statement, there appears to be no signs of a consensus within Asean on dealing with Myanmar though with Indonesia as the next Asean chair, there may be more moves to hold the military government accountable.
Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Asean to “take every method possible to stop Russia from playing hunger games with the world” when it comes to the grain corridor. “Whatever happens on the battleground, Russia should not use this corridor as a blackmail, as the leverage in international relations as it tried to do recently by withdrawing and then returning to the grain initiative under pressure,” he told reporters in Cambodia.
The context: Moscow recently resumed its participation in the Black Sea grain-export deal after receiving written guarantees from Ukraine that the safe-passage corridor will only be used for grain exports. At a time world leaders are increasingly worried over food insecurity and soaring inflation, Ukraine has been taking to the world’s stage to accuse Russia of slowing activity at the ports.
Biden said he’ll enter an intense meeting with Xi on Monday with a stronger hand, after US voters returned control of the Senate to his party. “I know I’m coming in stronger,” Biden said of the Xi meeting as he celebrated the victory in Cambodia.
The context: The Democratic performance in the midterm elections defied expectations that voters would hand control of at least one chamber of Congress by a wide margin in a rebuke to Biden and his policies. Instead, the election has been far closer, offering better than expected domestic support ahead of his meeting with the leader of the world’s second biggest economy.
The US and the Southeast Asian leaders elevated relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership as the White House lauded what it called an “unprecedented expansion” in ties between the two sides under President Joe Biden. Under the new partnership, the two sides with enjoy new high-level dialog processes on health, transportation, women’s empowerment, environment and climate, and energy.
The context: China and the US are locked in bitter competition for influence in Southeast Asia. While many regional governments count on the US as a key security partner, China has been Asean’s biggest economic ally. At the same time, Asean has been going out to upgrade ties with several other countries including Australia, India and Japan.