President Joe Biden's decision to skip Asean-related summits in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Sept 5-7 in favour of the G-20 leaders' meeting in India just two days later has been greeted with howls of disappointment and criticism around Southeast Asian capitals and elsewhere that are concerned about America's role in the region.
Mr Biden's unwillingness to show up is said to undermine "Asean centrality", the notion that the bloc should be the main convening platform for promoting regional peace and security.
It would of course be ideal to have the American president take part in the Asean-US summit and the East Asia Summit -- the latter a preeminent strategic dialogue which also includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and South Korea, apart from Asean member states.
But Asean centrality can no longer be taken for granted or simply assumed to hold. It increasingly has to be earned. First and foremost among Asean's critical shortcomings is its inability to address the Myanmar coup that occurred in February 2021, and the raging and violent civil war that has ensued ever since.
It is common knowledge that Asean has been divided on both the United States-China competition and conflict, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Brunei, Laos and Cambodia appear to be in China's orbit, whereas the rest more or less lean towards the US, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.
Myanmar is an outcast, while Thailand has been more inclined towards Beijing than it needs to be since the military coup in 2014. On the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Laos and Vietnam have abstained from key United Nations resolutions to condemn the aggression, with Thailand joining the abstainers on one of the resolutions. Singapore is at the opposite end, putting its money where its mouth is by imposing sanctions on Russia.
Notwithstanding these and other issues that have split Asean, such as human rights and China-Taiwan tensions, the most critical Asean divisiveness centres on Myanmar, because the war-torn country is a member state. If Asean cannot get its house in order with sufficient unity and common purpose, then it should not and cannot claim a central regional role to promote peace and security.
Indonesia's chairmanship this year has fallen short in effecting dialogue and a way forward in Myanmar. The Indonesian government did try, however, and should not be blamed for the lack of concrete results because Sen Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the junta known as the State Administration Council, has been devious and intransigent.
He has taken Asean for a ride by agreeing to the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), which he personally signed on to after it was brokered by Brunei in April 2021. The 5PC calls for the cessation of violence, inclusive dialogue, humanitarian assistance, an Asean envoy, and a delegation visit to promote compromise and a way out.
Yet the 5PC has floundered. Gen Min Aung Hlaing's apparent strategy is to exhaust and outlast other players in the mix. He has been instrumentally assisted by Thailand's outgoing Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai and his envoy for Myanmar, Pornpimol Kanchanalak. The pair have organised and facilitated "Track 1.5" policy-related meetings and even ministerial gatherings to lend legitimacy to the SAC.
Upholding the 5PC as the way to deal with Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have steadfastly refused to join the Thailand-hosted meetings. The Philippines falls in the same category, except Manila sent a mid-level diplomat to take part in one of the meetings.
Under Thailand's newly elected government, headed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who has already stated his intention of restoring his country's international standing, the Asean mix on Myanmar will likely be different. If the Philippines can stay the 5PC course, with Thailand's recalibrated foreign policy posture and projection, including its approach towards the Myanmar junta, there will be a fundamental flip, whereby firm 5PC backers will be the five original founding members of Asean.
The alignment of the original Asean-5 can bring a lot of diplomatic heft to the table. This is the way to reboot and recover Asean momentum. In turn, the Asean-5 from August 1967 can pressure the SAC to implement the 5PC, which Gen Min Aung Hlaing duplicitously agreed to. The Asean-5 should also engage the National Unity Government (NUG), especially if Myanmar's civilian-led parallel administration can be revamped for greater effectiveness. Indonesia and Malaysia have already interacted with the NUG.
These two staunch Asean member states, along with Singapore, have maintained what's left of Asean's credibility and relevance by sticking to the 5PC and not recognising the SAC and Gen Min Aung Hlaing as Myanmar's legitimate government. If the Philippines and Thailand, both with democratically governments, can follow suit, Asean centrality will be given a big boost. Other Asean member states can come in as they see fit. But they should not be allowed to hold Asean hostage on the Myanmar impasse because the 5PC was signed by representatives from each of the 10 member states.
A newly configured regional grouping led by the Asean-5 will have the leverage and latitude to bring Gen Min Aung Hlaing to heel because his military regime is losing in the country's civil war. Reliable reports and datapoints suggest the ubiquitous People's Defence Force units and ethnic armies are winning more territory and keeping Myanmar troops pinned down, and are reluctant to fight without armour or air support. With a coup that has failed to consolidate and impose control over his territory and population, Gen Min Aung Hlaing is vulnerable.
Getting its act together on Myanmar would enable Asean to be taken more seriously. Dissatisfaction with Asean centrality has manifested in other "minilateral" cooperation among outside powers, including the Quad among Australia, India, Japan and the US, and Aukus, a security pact of Australia, the United Kingdom and the US. If Asean wants to be back at the front and centre in the region, it will need to regroup around the original core five states. The old Asean way of consensus and non-interference would need to be tweaked and nuanced correspondingly.