Myanmar spirals ‘from bad to worse, to horrible’
In 2022, three ASEAN countries assumed the chairmanship of important regional and global dialogue structures. For the first time in history, the G20 was chaired by Indonesia, while the APEC chair was assumed by Thailand, and the ASEAN chair went to Cambodia. The year 2022 was set to pass under the sign of ASEAN leadership, with pathways to an effective post-COVID recovery identified, especially as the positive economic momentum in Southeast Asian countries prompted a cautious optimism.
These considerations have guided Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia in establishing their presidency programmes. As high on the agenda of the G20, Indonesia suggested discuss the global health architecture as well as ways to ensure a sustainable energy transition and digital transformation. Thailand urged APEC participants will focus on post-industrial recovery in Asia-Pacific, while Cambodia Speak clearly a beautiful slogan to unite the countries of the region in the face of new challenges: ASEAN ACT (Facing Challenges Together).
However, the expected trajectories of the three presidencies were disrupted by two synchronously escalating conflicts, which Southeast Asia had until then perceived more as substantive problems for the region’s institutions. The transition of the Ukrainian conflict in February 2022 to a hot phase led to an almost complete disengagement, political as well as economic, of Russia vis-à-vis the United States and the EU, as well as Japan, in part of South Korea and Singapore, which have decided to join the sanctions pressure. With the general psychological perception of the conflict as geographically remote from Southeast Asia, its impact on the day-to-day economic life of nations in the region has manifested in the form of rising inflation and fears over food security. and energy. Moreover, they have become a determining factor in the activities of the presiding countries in organizing the institutional work of the mechanisms centered on the G20, APEC and ASEAN.
The second challenge was a sharp escalation in US-China tensions, exacerbated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2-3, 2022 as well as the ensuing trip by US Congressmen two weeks later. . The previous visit by such a high profile US politician dates back to a quarter of a century ago, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made such a trip. Previously, the contradictions between Washington and Beijing brought an unpleasant, albeit time-limited and relatively manageable, discord to the activities of regional institutions – today their impact on the aforementioned structures and on the G20 risks for the first time reach a qualitative level. new level.
The stability of the regional situation is also undermined by an “internal challenge”, namely the persistence of political tensions in Myanmar, where a military coup took place in February 2021. In addition to the intra-regional dimension, the situation has a global dimension, since the most important dialogue partners of ASEAN (that is, the participants of the G20) – the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India , the EU and the UK – have taken diametrically opposed positions towards Myanmar’s new government.
Under these circumstances, the effectiveness of ASEAN’s institutional balance – now characteristic of the association of small and medium-sized states that seek to interact on an equal footing with much larger international actors – has been somewhat little compromised. In the coming months before the fall cycle of G20, APEC and ASEAN summits, the presiding countries will, it seems, have to seriously rethink the forms and modalities of this balancing act. .
Obviously, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia wish to maintain the inclusiveness of these institutions, because it is this inclusiveness that distinguishes them from the many multilateral mechanisms put in place by Western countries. In the 1990s and 2000s, an inclusive approach helped ASEAN countries form a network of regional institutions rooted in the Association, thereby significantly increasing its international prestige and facilitating a favorable economic environment for member states to develop.
The May 2022 declaration by the three presiding countries that they do not want to turn multilateral structures into an arena for international disputes and that they are open to working with all partners was in this spirit of inclusion. Under serious pressure from the US and EU, they all refused to exclude Russia from G20, APEC and ASEAN-centric formats. As a result, despite persistent calls from Western countries not to invite Russian representatives, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov participated in the July 2022 G20 ministerial meeting in Bali, which ended without a final communiqué, while the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended a meeting with his counterparts. of the G20 countries, also held in Bali in July, as well as the August meeting of Foreign Ministers of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on the sidelines of the 55th Summit of Foreign Ministers of ASEAN.
It is therefore becoming increasingly urgent for the Presiding States to work in a new environment that is much more divisive than before, which makes it virtually impossible to reach consensus on the issues at hand. However, the G20, ASEAN-centric institutions and APEC take decisions by consensus. Previously, there were only a few precedents where ASEAN and APEC were temporarily paralyzed by the influence of US-China tensions, with consensus lacking on final summit communiqués. For example, the previous Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012 and the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea in 2018.
Despite all the fears that great power disputes would cripple multilateral institutions, the three presiding countries still seem to have displayed their own ambitions to contribute to at least a limited pacification of the conflict situations in Russia-West, China-US relations. This is demonstrated in particular by the diplomatic efforts of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who visited Ukraine and the Russian Federation in June 2022. Indonesia has so far been consistent in its decision not to join the sanctions against Russia, rejecting the idea of establishing threshold prices for Russian oil, which was actively encouraged by the United States, because the country do not believe that this could contribute to a tangible reduction of international tensions and ensure energy security. A cautious approach to the question of sanctions is taken by Thailand, which celebrates the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Russia in 2022, as well as by Cambodia. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in May 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen call for the lifting of all sanctions against Russia, because their rebound effect has hit the countries that imposed them and, above all, the developing states that had nothing to do with the conflict and had barely begun to recover from the pandemic.
In a broader context, this year essentially puts Asian multilateralism to the test. In the new international circumstances, the inevitable question becomes whether Asian countries can assert their right to manage regional and, in part, global processes – with deeds rather than words. This takes on a particular tone in the context of the discussion taking place in the Western scientific and expert community about the role of multilateral institutions in the “integration” of “deviant” countries like Russia and China (the list goes on). in the “rules-based world order”. Noteworthy in this discussion is the division of multilateral institutions into those that operate within this “order” and those that do not.  Multi-party formats created by Russia and China (e.g. SCO) are mostly considered the latter, but other non-Western organizations may soon find themselves in this group as well.
The fact that the United States views Asian institutions, primarily ASEAN-centric, as structures with limited functionality became evident with the beginning of the creation of Quad-type multilateral groups such as Quad+ and AUKUS. This perception stems from the fact that ASEAN, which was perceived by Western countries throughout the 1990s and 2000s as the organization supposed to ensure the regional socialization of China, failed to carry out this task. Accordingly, from the American perspective, the activities of ASEAN-centric institutions needed to be complemented by more “effective” formats. This is the meaning of the many insurance by US foreign and defense officials that minilateral formats complement ASEAN-centric formats and enhance regional security, rather than contradicting their activities.
The year 2022 also saw the first attempts to torpedo ASEAN-centric institutions from within. In July 2022, citing the Ukrainian conflict and the situation in Myanmar as a pretext, Australia, the United States and New Zealand boycotted a meeting of the counter-terrorism working group of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting and Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus) chaired by Myanmar and Russia. So far, there have been no instances of large-scale boycotts of the G20, APEC and wider ASEAN events involving Russia, but a few precedents that have already occurred were apparently intended to challenge questioning Moscow’s ability to make meaningful contributions to ASEAN-centric institutions. and the ability of the Association to respond adequately to new challenges.
At the same time, Russia has a vested interest in ensuring that Asian multilateralism will still stand the test of strength. First, facing significant obstacles in working with many multilateral structures, including those of the UN, Asian platforms are becoming the main multilateral formats for its diplomatic activities, in addition to the SCO and BRICS. Second, despite the cumbersome and sometimes awkwardness of Asian multi-stakeholder institutions, they are an example of genuine consideration of the national interests of states with very diverse political and economic structures. Western nations have not yet acquired this valuable experience.
 Goddard S. Foreigners: how the international system can still control China and Russia // Foreign Affairs, May/June 2022, vol. 101, number 1. P. 28–39.
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