ASEAN unity scrapes by, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi praised

For­eign Min­is­ter Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (right) earned respect for her diplo­matic aplomb af­ter her first ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters’ meet­ing, where she greeted her Chi­nese coun­ter­part Wang Yi (cen­tre) and nav­i­gated a dicey stale­mate over the re­gional group­ing’

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NYAN LYNN AUNG nyan­lin­aung@mm­times.com

ASEAN unity may be un­der se­vere strain, but For­eign Min­is­ter Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from her first min­is­te­rial meet­ing with­out a scratch on her in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts, who praised the leader’s diplo­macy.

By most mea­sures, the ASEAN For­eign Min­is­te­rial Meet­ing in Laos this week rep­re­sented a paral­y­sis, if not a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in re­la­tions among the bloc. The for­eign min­is­ters were con­fronted with pro­vid­ing a re­sponse to China’s claims to ter­ri­tory in the South China Sea, and a re­cent rul­ing by an ar­bi­tral tri­bunal in The Hague in favour of the Philip­pines.

The ver­dict, an­nounced on July 12 just ahead of the for­eign min­is­ters’ meet­ing in Vi­en­ti­enne, was met by a smat­ter­ing of in­di­vid­ual re­sponses by mem­bers of the re­gional group. While Myan­mar has no stake in the mar­itime feud, the new govern­ment pro­duced a state­ment that was con­sid­ered more for­ward-look­ing than those of its neigh­bours.

As Myan­mar’s new govern­ment grap­ples with its in­ter­na­tional role and bal­ances be­tween more re­cent ally the United States and long-time deep-pock­eted in­vestor China, the ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute is seen as a sort of mine field, one the pre­vi­ous govern­ment had largely avoided. But with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked to pol­ish ASEAN’s in­ter­na­tional im­age, her take on the South China Sea could carry sub­stan­tial in­flu­ence.

Af­ter hours be­hind closed doors, the ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters yes­ter­day did even­tu­ally pro­duce a joint com­mu­niqué. Cam­bo­dia’s for­eign min­is­ter had re­port­edly stalled the con­sen­sus, the only coun­try to op­pose a joint state­ment on China’s ag­gres­sive expansion into the dis­puted ter­ri­tory.

Af­ter the ini­tial stale­mate, the for­eign min­sters even­tu­ally ac­cepted a joint state­ment that briefly ad­dressed the dis­pute, not­ing in one para­graph that “some min­is­ters” had ex­pressed con­cern over the “es­ca­la­tion of ac­tiv­i­ties in the area”.

U Than Soe Naing, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi han­dled the po­lit­i­cal dead­lock – and the risk of alien­at­ing her Chi­nese coun­ter­part – with diplo­matic aplomb.

“It would be very dan­ger­ous for Myan­mar if she could not han­dle this sit­u­a­tion diplo­mat­i­cally. Hang­ing in the bal­ance was her im­age as a leader of the ASEAN, and her first visit to the ASEAN meet­ings,” he said.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met with her Chi­nese coun­ter­part Wang Yi on the side­lines of the re­gional bloc’s meet­ing on July 24. China has been try­ing hard to lobby Myan­mar to restart sev­eral stalled projects, in­clud­ing hy­dropower dams and mines. Mr Wang in­vited the state coun­sel­lor on a trip to China. The two did not sep­a­rately dis­cuss the South China Sea, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial at the ASEAN af­fairs depart­ment.

Kavi Chongkit­ta­vorn, a Thai jour­nal­ist and ASEAN af­fairs ex­pert, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi bore her dual role as state coun­sel­lor and for­eign min­is­ter with diplo­matic re­straint.

“South­east Asia’s pol­i­tics are chang­ing, and Myan­mar is lead­ing the way,” he said.

PHOTO: AFP

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