34th ASEAN Summit: South China Sea Dispute, Rohingya Crisis Remain Top On Agenda

The 34th ASEAN summit (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is being held in Bangkok where the leaders of the ASEAN member states are attending. The 34th ASEAN summit, to be held under the theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability”, will focus on the repatriation of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, besides devising a joint strategy to confront cybersecurity, extremism, terrorism and human trafficking.

Indonesian leader Widodo will emphasize the need to accelerate the peace process in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, the epicentre of a massive military crackdown on Rohingya minority Muslims in August 2017.

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, emerging the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.

Jakarta expressed hope that ASEAN countries will encourage and help Myanmar in preparing a plan for repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh. “We hope that ASEAN [member countries] will adopt or approve steps that have been taken,” said Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister AM Fachir.

He hoped that Myanmar will accept the assessment results by the ASEAN-Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT) on the issue of Rohingya, which was assigned to prepare a rapid assessment and support logistics, and coordinate issues related to Rohingya.

In the run-up to Thailand summit, Myanmar’s Suu Kyi has been meeting diplomats of Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam in an attempt to evolve a common position on the issue of Rohingya and the situation in Rakhine. She also met ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi.

It is believed that the text of the chairman’s statement to be issued at the end of the summit will include a desire to facilitate safe, secure and dignified return of Rohingya refugees. The Buddhist-majority Thailand will propose establishing an ASEAN Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue.

Conflict in the South China Sea

The Philippines is expected to flag China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea during the meeting. A Chinese ship had hit a Filipino fishing boat in the disputed maritime region. Its crew were rescued later by Vietnamese fishermen.

“[The] South China Sea will be on the agenda and the leaders are going to exchange views on this issue,” said Junever Mahilum-West, assistant secretary at the Philippine foreign affairs department early this week.

She emphasized that the regional bloc was negotiating a “code of conduct” although China and the ASEAN bloc had already agreed to solve overlapping maritime claims peacefully and put in place a regional mechanism to avert conflict.

One of the biggest flashpoints in Asia, China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. The countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan challenge China’s claim.

Spread over 3.5 million square kilometers, the sea is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes and covers a vast reserve of gas and oil. Set up in August 1967 in Bangkok, the forum was established as a mechanism of consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are the founding members which were later joined by Brunei Darussalam on 7 January 1984; Viet Nam on 28 July 1995; Laos and Myanmar on 23 July 1997 and finally by Cambodia on 30 April 1999.