Myanmar's seat empty as VP Harris speaks to ASEAN leaders

U.S Vice President Kamala Harris attends the 11th ASEAN-U.S Summit during the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, Sept 6, 2023. [Reuters]

A chair with Myanmar’s flag was left empty as Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Southeast Asian leaders during the U.S.-ASEAN, or Association of Southeast Asian Nations, summit in Jakarta hosted by outgoing chair Indonesia.

“The United States will continue to press the regime to end the horrific violence to release all those unjustly detained and to reestablish Myanmar's path to inclusive democracy,” Harris said at the opening of the summit Wednesday.

“And we will continue to support ASEAN’s five-point consensus,” she added, referring to the group’s 2021 demands on the crisis triggered by the February 2021 military coup, which include immediate cessation of violence and constructive dialogue facilitated by ASEAN.

Last year, ASEAN agreed to bar Myanmar’s ruling generals from meetings until they make progress to address the crisis. An empty Myanmar chair has been held as a symbol to urge the country to return to democracy.

The group announced earlier this week they are barring Myanmar from its turn as chair in 2026, as they blame the ongoing bloodshed on the country’s junta. The Philippines will take ASEAN’s helm instead.

ASEAN’s statement demonstrates that the group is more united on Myanmar than some people thought, said Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“It makes clear that the bloc blames the military for the violence, sustains a de facto suspension of the junta’s leaders from ASEAN meetings, and forces the junta to give up its turn chairing the organization until the violence stops,” he told VOA.

Myanmar's turn at chairing ASEAN was last skipped in 2006 as the United States and European Union demanded that the military-ruled country move toward democracy and release pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Enduring commitment

As some Republican presidential candidates’ display of isolationism toward regional conflicts triggers anxiety among some ASEAN members about U.S. staying power, Vice President Harris reaffirmed Washington’s “enduring commitment” to Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

“The defense and deterrence commitments of the United States and our security presence in the Indo-Pacific help protect our homeland and ensure regional stability,” she said. “It is therefore in our vital interest to promote a region that is open, interconnected, prosperous, secure and resilient.”

As part of the administration’s effort to ensure safe sea traffic, last month Washington signed a deal with the Pacific Island state of Palau that would allow U.S. Coast Guard ships to operate on that nation’s behalf in its exclusive economic zone without a Palauan officer present.

Harris also welcomed the presence of Timor-Leste in its capacity as ASEAN observer, and she pledged U.S. support for Timor-Leste’s ASEAN accession process.

Heightened tensions

Harris’ visit comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, as China released a 2023 territorial map that has drawn the ire of India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.

A White House official told VOA that throughout her engagements in Jakarta, the vice president will make clear that the U.S. rejects what the official described as China's unlawful maritime claims and provocative actions.

“She will express continued support for ASEAN's efforts to develop a code of conduct for the South China Sea, consistent with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the rights of third parties,” the official said.

During the China-ASEAN summit held the same day, Chinese Premier Li Qiang appeared to try to calm ruffled feathers, saying it is important to avoid a “new Cold War” when dealing with conflicts and that countries need to “appropriately handle differences and disputes.”

In the same meeting, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the need for Beijing and Washington to continue talking with each other and to strive for greater trust and cooperation. He warned that sharpened geopolitical rivalries could easily stoke existing flashpoints in the region, endangering ASEAN’s decades-long peace, prosperity and stability.

On Thursday, Harris will attend the East Asia Summit, which brings together ASEAN and its partners — the United States, China, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. She will depart immediately after the summit and is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Friday, as President Joe Biden heads to the G20 summit in New Delhi, India.