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China, Russia, and Myanmar: Symptomatic of a Weakening ASEAN?

ASEAN heads of state wave on stage during the ASEAN-China Summit as part of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2022. TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP

By Saniya Kulkarni

According to reports the annual ASEAN summit, which takes place today in Phnom Penh, is prioritizing the issue of rising violence in member state Myanmar following the 2021 coup which resulted in a military junta displacing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The brutal repression of dissent and more than 2,300 civilian deaths so far has stirred worried responses from the Association, leading to the ban of junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing from the summit for the second year in a row. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s controversial visit to Myanmar in July may not have been all that Hlaing had hoped for, considering Wang met with military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin as opposed to the junta leader himself.

The ASEAN member states held a special Foreign Secretaries’ meeting to discuss the crisis and admitted that their Five-Point Consensus to resolve tensions in Myanmar failed to achieve any of its objectives. The peace framework, agreed upon at a summit in Jakarta in April 2021, calls for “an immediate cessation of violence”, “constructive dialogue among all parties”, the facilitation of mediation by a special envoy of ASEAN, and the provision of humanitarian aid. Not only has this agreement overestimated the will of the junta to cooperate with its neighbors, it has also made apparent the shortcomings of the Association in providing meaningful assistance or leadership in regional crises. Aside from the lack of progress made on the Consensus in the year following its adoption, member states’ policies towards Burmese refugees have been unhelpful at best and harmful at worst.  

ASEAN is one of the few regional organizations that Myanmar is a part of, and arguably the one where it holds most sway. The junta’s defiance of actors with such diplomatic and geographic proximity and consequence is symptomatic of its emboldening against international pressure. This may not be novel to the international community but is certainly indicative of the ongoing realignments in the world order exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Myanmar’s alienation from ASEAN coupled with what could be perceived as a subtle snub from long-standing friend China is a probable factor in pushing Hlaing to launch his “charm offensive” towards Russia in a desperate but reciprocated attempt to seek out new alliances.  The two have been strengthening their relationship from earlier this year, resulting in several high-profile exchanges, including two visits by General Hlaing to President Putin in Moscow.  

The deepening relationship reflects how both Myanmar and Russia are seeking to diversify and expand their networks of partnerships. Russia’s recent Vostok military exercises are emblematic of this. The exercises ran in parallel with the seventh edition of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in the regional capital Vladivostok from September 5 to 8, the theme of which was ‘The Path to a Multipolar World’. The EEF was established in 2015 to boost investment in Russia’s far east region and has recently been employed to encourage wider interaction with the Indo-Pacific theatre.

China, Myanmar, and India were among the largest delegations at the Forum, with representatives from all three countries also speaking at its Plenary session. General Hlaing’s speech highlighted his commitment to strengthening ties with Russia and his belief in President Putin’s “impartial” and “correct” way of dealing with world affairs. He was also referred to as ‘Prime Minister’ in all official communication, a self-proclaimed title that no other major country has recognized so far.  

This week the US and the EU have announced a new set of sanctions in addition to those that are already in place, but UNSC condemnation has been repeatedly blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes. Although China and Myanmar share a historically “paukphaw” or fraternal relationship, the latter has been attempting to decrease its reliance on its northern neighbor and diversify its regional ties by turning towards powers such as India, which has also contributed to enabling military rule, albeit to a lesser extent

Russia’s support of the junta in its bid to find a new market for its oil and weapons, however, has remained unmatched. Along with the material aspect, the relationship is also bolstered by the ideological inclinations of two strongmen united against ‘western’ sanctions and in their efforts to create ‘The Path to a Multipolar World’. It is yet to be seen whether alienation due to sanctions will further cement ties between the two or whether this increasingly solid relationship will alarm the international community into taking firmer action. ASEAN’s willingness as well as capability to play a more active role in pushing towards the latter, however, remains questionable and will perhaps become clearer following the summit this weekend.

Saniya Kulkarni is a project coordinator at LSEIDEAS.

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