The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week held its fall gaggle of summits. In addition to stocktaking among regional leaders, the meetings included consultations with ASEAN’s dialogue partners — Japan, the United States and China among them — that reaffirmed the organization’s “centrality” to those countries’ thinking about the region.

Those assurances are gratifying, as are the monetary commitments that accompany them, but ASEAN’s relevance is being challenged as never before.

Attendance at this week’s meetings spotlighted one gap around the table and one new face. Missing was Myanmar. ASEAN foreign ministers decided earlier this month to not invite Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, installed as the leader of the country after a February coup, or any other political representative and instead offered a seat to the permanent secretary of the country’s Foreign Ministry.

While insisting that Myanmar “remains a member of the ASEAN family,” the summit declaration underscored that the junta’s refusal to meet with the group’s special envoy and lack of progress in restoring democracy challenged “our adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government … .” The Myanmar government said that it could not accept having its participation “downgraded,” but added that its failure to attend did “not intend to show its protest against ASEAN or to boycott ASEAN.”

ASEAN’s readiness to take that position facilitated the attendance of Joe Biden, whose presence marked the first time in four years that a U.S. president joined the group. While Biden has signaled his intention to re-engage, having Myanmar’s leader at the table would have made that difficult, if not impossible.

Biden reiterated the pledge that his predecessors made and other senior U.S. officials repeated in recent months: ASEAN is central to American engagement with the region, the U.S. will be an active participant in regional affairs and the U.S. president will reclaim his seat in regional conversations. Biden called the relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN “vital for the future of all 1 billion of our people” and the partnership “essential to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which has been the foundation of our shared security and prosperity for many decades.”

The American president reinforced those words with promises of aid. To strengthen the Strategic Partnership the U.S. has with ASEAN, he offered $40 million to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak and strengthen ASEAN’s ability to respond to future pandemics. Another $20.5 million will be made available to help mitigate the effects of climate change, $20 million will support cooperation on trade and innovation, along with $17.5 million for education projects and $4 million for gender equality and equity.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida marked his first international conference since taking office with similar pledges. He promised $650 million in grant-in-aid to help promote the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the geopolitical framework developed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, infrastructure development and efforts to remove microplastics from the sea.

He also committed an additional $1.8 billion in development funds for ASEAN for COVID-19 vaccines and to address climate change. Japan has already provided ¥5.5 billion ($48 million) for the ASEAN Center for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases and offered more than 16 million coronavirus vaccine doses to the ASEAN region.

Kishida backed the regional group’s efforts to broker peace in Myanmar and raised concerns about human rights in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region of western China. He said that North Korea threatens regional peace and security with its missile launches, and called on ASEAN members to help return Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents. Kishida also emphasized the need for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and stated Japan’s resolve to oppose “unilateral moves to alter the status quo” in the South and East China Seas.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made similar comments while reassuring ASEAN governments that the new Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) enhanced trilateral security partnership is not a threat to regional stability and that neither it nor the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Australia, Japan, India and the U.S., will usurp ASEAN’s role in the region. (Biden and Kishida did the same.)

Some regional governments have been worried that AUKUS would increase tensions and that it might facilitate nuclear proliferation. Morrison repeated pledges that Australia’s nonnuclear status would not be affected.

Those assurances helped facilitate agreement between Australia and ASEAN to establish a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Morrison offered the first fruits of that new relationship with a pledge to provide $154 million for ASEAN projects on health and energy security, counterterrorism, transnational crime, pandemic recovery and scholarships.

While no leader says that China is the target of the new security arrangements, all understand the inference — including those from Beijing. That is why China too is seeking to upgrade relations with ASEAN.

Already the region’s biggest trading partner, it has been providing development aid and vaccines as well, and is negotiating with ASEAN over a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea to address territorial disputes and minimize the capacity of outsiders to intervene. Meanwhile, it misses no opportunity to denounce arrangements like AUKUS or the “Quad.”

Last year, China proposed to elevate its ties with ASEAN. That, along with talks over the CoC, membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and its application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership underscores Beijing’s commitment to balance efforts by Japan, the U.S. and others to engage Southeast Asia.

The fall ASEAN summits were a success. ASEAN remains the fulcrum of regional geopolitics, but challenges to its status are growing. Myanmar damages its credibility. The emergence of other security initiatives need not undermine ASEAN — unless it proves unable to address real threats. That remains unproven.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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