China, Russia Back Calls for ASEAN Special Summit on Crisis in Post-Coup Myanmar

Shailaja Neelakantan and Ahmad Syamsudin
Washington and Jakarta
China, Russia Back Calls for ASEAN Special Summit on Crisis in Post-Coup Myanmar Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (left) and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi greet each other according to COVID-19 protocols, in Fujian province in China, April 2, 2021.
Photo courtesy Malaysian Foreign Minister’s Office

China and Russia have backed calls for an ASEAN leaders’ meeting to discuss the turmoil in post-coup Myanmar, where military and security forces unleashed their guns and killed more than 500 pro-democracy protesters during the past two months.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with its share of former military leaders and one-party states, has been roundly criticized for not reaching a consensus on how to deal with member-state Myanmar’s junta after the military overthrew an elected government on Feb. 1.

“China firmly supports the ASEAN in promoting peace talks with the ASEAN way, and supports holding a special meeting of ASEAN leaders to mediate Myanmar's situation at an early date,” Wang said after meeting with Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Thursday, a statement on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website said.

In meetings held over the past three days in China, Beijing’s top diplomat held separate talks with Malaysia’s foreign minister and the chief envoys of three other ASEAN states: Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. 

Both Moscow and Beijing supported an ASEAN summit on Myanmar, said Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, after meeting with Wang on Friday.

“The PRC has supported ASEAN’s efforts and offers to help Myanmar, including providing support for President Jokowi’s initiative to hold an ASEAN summit,” Retno told reporters via Zoom.

“Two days ago, I also had a conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,” Indonesia’s top diplomat said. “We also discussed the issue of Myanmar, and Russia expressed their support for ASEAN and the initiative of the president of Indonesia for an ASEAN summit.”

On March 19, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called for an emergency meeting of ASEAN leaders to discuss the Myanmar crisis.

But the situation there has become even more intense and fluid since last Saturday, when the junta killed at least 114 protesters – in the single deadliest day of violence since the coup – and launched air strikes on rebel positions in Karen state.

China supports ‘ASEAN approach’

China has extensive economic and strategic interests not just in Myanmar, but in many countries in the Southeast Asian bloc.

So far, Beijing has been muted in its response to the military coup in Myanmar and its violent aftermath. The Asian superpower has mostly called for stability, unlike Western nations which have condemned the toppling of an elected government and the violence.

On Thursday in New York, Beijing, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power, thwarted it from taking potential future action against Myanmar’s military, although the world body issued a statement condemning the killings of civilians there, reports said.

A day earlier, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan met with Wang.

After their meeting, Wang said that China was glad to support ASEAN’s “non-interference principle” in promoting stability in Myanmar. Wang referred to this as the “ASEAN approach.”

But critics have said that ASEAN’s foundational principle of non-interference in members’ domestic affairs was a major obstacle.

Besides, of the 10 members of the bloc, only Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have issued strong statements against the Myanmar military coup and the killings following the takeover of the government by the junta.

And only foreign ministers of those four countries, after a special meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers held on March 2, had called for the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and other democratically elected Myanmar leaders detained by the military.

Balakrishnan said at the time that the inability to reach a common position on the coup could diminish ASEAN’s credibility and relevance.

“It is critical that ASEAN continues to reiterate our guiding principles in light of the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar,” Balakrishnan had said after that virtual meeting with his nine counterparts from across the bloc.

“If not, we will have no choice but to state our views on the situation as individual ASEAN Member States. But quite frankly, this would starkly underscore our lack of unity, and undermine our credibility and relevance as an organization.”

Among ASEAN members, Thai leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha became prime minister after a coup he engineered as the army chief in 2014. The former general retained the post in a 2019 election widely viewed by the opposition parties as rigged in favor of the military.

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are all one-party states. And Brunei is a sultanate.

China has good-to-excellent relations with Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, in addition Myanmar, so whether its call for an ASEAN summit resonates with these nations remains to be seen.

ASEAN’s ‘difficult position’

China’s latest diplomatic effort on Myanmar comes after a former United States congressman, in his role as U.N. Special Rapporteur, Thomas Andrews, said an urgent meeting of Southeast Asian nations was imperative to prevent things in Myanmar from deteriorating more.

Since the Myanmar coup, analysts have described ASEAN’s difficult position vis-à-vis Myanmar.

Teuku Rezasyah, a lecturer in international relations at Padjajaran University in Bandung, Indonesia, said last month that ASEAN had to play its hand carefully on the Myanmar issue.

“After all, ASEAN is currently in a difficult position, torn between the West and China,” Rezasyah told BenarNews then.

“So what I’m worried about is if ASEAN takes an overtly hard line and is not trying to be accommodative, Myanmar will choose to consult China.”

“Indonesia is worried that Myanmar, which is under pressure from the West, will decide to leave ASEAN or fall into China’s embrace, because Southeast Asian countries don’t seem to have a single voice regarding the situation there,” Rezasyah said.

Azmi Hassan, a political analyst in Malaysia, had indicated that those nations that refrained from commenting on Myanmar were worried about potential fallout in their relations with Beijing.

“The problem is that what’s happening for the last few days is that a number of ASEAN members are with China by saying that this is an internal matter,” Azmi told BenarNews last month.

“So, I think it is very important for Malaysia and Indonesia, which have very influential standing in ASEAN itself to pursue, or I would say, force, Brunei as the chairman to call a special meeting regarding Myanmar.”

Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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