Unpacking ASEAN’s Foreign Policy: Myanmar, Intervention, and a Divided Vision

Bonnie Vanguardia is a 3rd year History & International Relations student at King’s College London. As a Filipino-Australian she is passionate about the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region and writes about it for the ‘Youth in Politics’ website.

“I believe ASEAN matters and will always matter,” spoke Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi for the bloc’s 55th Anniversary in August. “Not only for what it is, but more for what it does”. Indeed, the regional organisation has grown into an influential ten-member coalition over the years. With a combined GDP of 9.7 trillion USD and a population of over 650 million, ASEAN is projected to become the 4th largest economy by 2030. Its strong market, advancements in social prosperity, and regional trade leave much to celebrate.  

Yet, the organisation continues to fall short of the political dynamism common to other regional associations, with its inability to wield government influence made most evident by the ongoing Myanmar Crisis. In February 2021, a group of army leaders headed by General Min Aung Hlaing overthrew the nation’s democratically elected government. The military regime has since gained notoriety for its violent rule, holding captive 10,000 political prisoners, sentencing former leader Aung San Suu Kyi to hard labour, and executing four pro-democracy activists. The killings, which included a former member of parliament, were carried out despite pleas from international organisations and foreign governments. 

The re-establishment of capital punishment prompted further sanctions from the UN and the EU, with the EU targeting 65 Burmese officials as well as the nation’s prized oil company. But despite the examples set by such organisations, neither ASEAN nor any of its member-states have imposed sanctions on Myanmar to this day. Instead, the bloc offered only a condemnation of the killings.  

Foreign interference is a divisive topic within the organisation, which was founded in Jakarta in early 1967. According to its 1971 ‘Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality’ declaration, the association is committed to the political autonomy of its members and denounces intervention by economic or military means. However, the policy is hardly enforced, with the organisation and several of its states often involving themselves in intra-regional crises.

ASEAN’s role in ending the Vietnamese-Cambodian War highlights its tendency to detract from non-intervention, arguably being the organisation’s most successful use of diplomacy. In 1980 the bloc lobbied for a UN Resolution calling for the expulsion of forces from Cambodia. Years later, Indonesia, the birthplace of ASEAN and home to its headquarters, co-chaired the 1991 International Conference on Cambodia responsible for concluding the conflict. The regional association had thus shown itself to be flexible in regards to intervention, as well as capable of pressuring foreign governments into complying with their views. 

But the environment in which the bloc exercised this influence has changed. Now, ASEAN operates in a multipolar world within a region beset with superpower rivalry. As the need for economic and political ties becomes urgent in a post-pandemic era, its members often align their foreign policy with that of the United States or China instead of cultivating its own. In the case of certain states such as the Philippines, it may lean towards either power depending on its incumbent leadership. Clearly, the organisation has lost much of its political backbone.  

This struggle between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific has created a flurry of polarising opinions amongst South-East Asian Governments, not limited to the subject of Myanmar. Singapore, which has historically been one of ASEAN’s strongest supporters of non-interference, labelled the organisation’s response to the coup as ‘just not acceptable’ and urged the group to step up. Meanwhile, other members fear that intervention would jeopardise relations with their key trading partner, China, who appears to back Hlaing’s government. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that his country would support the junta ‘no matter how the situation changes, given the fact that Beijing had already poured many resources into their geo-strategic projects in the nation. 

The situation unfolding in Myanmar exposed fractures in the bloc’s vision, but the organisation’s leadership had already been divided by a number of regional crises in the twenty-first century. Despite internal calls to investigate extrajudicial killings during former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘drug war’, ASEAN remained largely silent on the matter and even reaffirmed its goal of ending illicit drug use. More recently, the organisation adopted a neutral position during US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, despite the governments of Laos and Cambodia calling out Beijing’s preponderance in the region. In response, ASEAN issued a short statement offering to ‘play a constructive role’ during the China-Taiwan clashes.  

The association has similarly approached Myanmar with caution in a bid to not polarise any of its members. After General Hlaing reneged on his promise at a 2021 emergency ASEAN summit to end hostilities, he was banned from attending future summits. But the move, coupled with the organisation’s refusal to adopt sanctions, has only opened the organisation to further criticism for its inaction. 

‘It is essential for ASEAN’s credibility,’ explained Singapore’s Foreign Minister Balakrishnan, ‘to have a view, have a position and offer some constructive assistance to Myanmar’. By adopting a neutral position ASEAN has not, as it has intended, upheld solidarity, but rather solidified tense division amongst its governments in relation to human rights and public affairs. The organisation has thus spent more time deliberating the possibility of interference, as opposed to planning on what ‘constructive assistance’ could entail. 

ASEAN’s Human Rights Parliament has criticised the Secretariat for its inability to choose between non-intervention and international outcry. If the organisation wishes to remain relevant as a political force, it is crucial that they increase their pressure on Myanmar in the coming months.  

Image credit: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/styles/embed_medium/public/media_2022/04/202204asia_indonesia_ASEAN_protest.jpg?itok=6Uj_zDq8

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