China is meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a yearly summit amid reports that member states rebuffed Beijing’s request to include Myanmar’s top general.
The virtual summit, hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, began on Monday without a representative from Myanmar, according to the Reuters news agency.
This is the second time in a month that ASEAN has excluded Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing from a regional summit.
The general overthrew the elected government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) on February 1 and oversaw a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters that has plunged Myanmar into civil war.
The 10-member ASEAN spearheaded diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, agreeing with Min Aung Hlaing in April to a deal that included talks with the deposed and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the military failed to follow through on the agreement, and ASEAN retaliated by barring Min Aung Hlaing from its summits.
The decision is unprecedented for a group of countries that emphasise non-interference in domestic affairs and have their own shoddy track records on democracy.
According to Reuters, it was Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei that rejected China’s bid to include Min Aung Hlaing in Monday’s China-ASEAN summit. An Indonesian diplomat told the news agency its stance was that only a “non-political” figure should represent Myanmar at ASEAN summits.
Although Beijing appears to have accepted the decision, the fact that it pushed for the general’s inclusion at all has stirred the geopolitical pot in the region.
Josh Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he did not take China’s lobbying for Min Aung Hlaing’s inclusion at Monday’s summit as a sign that Beijing is warming to military rule in Myanmar.
He described the military’s power grab in Myanmar as a “disaster for Beijing for the most part”.
“I do think China is very unhappy with the situation in Myanmar, and wants to work with ASEAN to try to restore Myanmar to something close, eventually, to the pre-coup status, which was much much better for China,” he said.
The coup and subsequent internal conflict have caused instability which has threatened Chinese business interests, sparked a surge of COVID-19 cases, and reignited old civil wars in border regions.
Aaron Connelly, Southeast Asia research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the fact that China acquiesced to ASEAN’s refusal to allow Min Aung Hlaing is telling.
“If the junta’s international legitimacy were a priority for Beijing, I don’t think we’d see them accept this decision quite so easily,” he said.
Connelly noted that China has also accepted a deal to allow Kyaw Moe Tun to continue as Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, despite pledging his loyalty to the overthrown government and being charged by the military with treason.
“The chill between Min Aung Hlaing and Chinese leaders runs deep, and that has not changed as quickly as some expected – despite the two otherwise adopting a transactional approach to diplomacy,” he added.
Anti-military figures in Myanmar were unimpressed with China’s move, however, including Dr Sasa, a spokesperson for the National Unity Government (NUG). Members of the NUG were appointed by legislators elected in the 2020 polls, which the NLD won in a landslide, but the military refused to recognise.
Sasa said it was “so wrong” for China to invite Min Aung Hlaing to the summit.
“The military junta in Myanmar has no support of the people of ASEAN and has nothing good to offer to China or ASEAN other than these terrible crises and chaos,” he said.
In contrast, Sasa said the people of Myanmar can bring “peace, prosperity and stability” to the region. “It’s the choice between the people of Myanmar and genocidal military junta in Myanmar,” he said.
Prominent activist and protest leader Thinzar Shunlei Yi said China’s lobbying on Min Aung Hlaing’s behalf “clearly lays out” that the regional superpower “wants to influence ASEAN and the region in terms of politics, security or economics”. She praised ASEAN’s “historic decision” to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from last month’s summit and said other countries should be inspired by this decision rather than undermining it.
“China must respect [the] ASEAN Summit and listen to the voices of Myanmar people,” she said.
The United Kingdom for one, has followed ASEAN’s lead for the upcoming in-person meeting between the G7 and ASEAN foreign ministers in London in December. The Myanmar military will not be allowed to attend in person, with only a “non-political representative” permitted via video.
Charles Santiago, a Malaysian legislator and president of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, slammed China’s “attempt to prevail on” ASEAN in a statement. He accused the Myanmar military of trying to “receive legitimacy through China, a country that notoriously lacks respect for human rights” and urged ASEAN states to avoid becoming “China’s puppets”.
But Santiago said the move presents ASEAN with both a “significant challenge and opportunity”.
“Our leaders must hold the line and show the world a drastically new and tougher approach to Myanmar,” he said, calling for the regime to be banned from all meetings associated with ASEAN, for the generals to be blocked from travelling within the region, and for ASEAN to open formal dialogue with the NUG.
Santiago also told Al Jazeera he hoped ASEAN leaders would raise the issue of “constant encroachment of Chinese vessels” in Southeast Asian waters. He accused China of sending “soldiers masquerading as fishermen”. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies claimed that a Chinese maritime militia is patrolling the South China Sea, harrying other vessels and shoring up China’s controversial territorial claims. The issue has been a particular flashpoint for the Philippines and Malaysia.
Both Connelly and Kurlantzick also expect South China Sea issues to remain a priority for China in Southeast Asia. They said Beijing will seek to use its political leverage over Cambodia, ASEAN’s next chair, to stymie any criticism of its increasingly aggressive approach.
Connelly said Cambodia may still have “some room to maneuver” on the Myanmar crisis, but China will have “stronger opinions” on how Cambodia handles South China Sea disputes.
Kurlantzick said China will hope to use Cambodia to “sow discord within ASEAN” on the issue.
“Given Cambodia’s closeness to China I think Beijing will use Cambodia [again] to stop any ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea,” he said. Cambodia previously blocked an ASEAN consensus in 2016, calling for China to respect an international ruling that sided with the Philippines in a territorial dispute with China.
Kurlantzick said China will also be seeking to upgrade ties with ASEAN, and present itself as a more reliable economic partner than the United States.
“I think China also clearly wants to upgrade strategic ties with ASEAN, to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and also wants to heavily advertise that, unlike the US, China is closely involved with the extensive economic integration currently underway in Southeast Asia,” he said.