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Myanmar Crisis

US sounds out ASEAN top diplomats for meeting on Myanmar

Biden administration signals focus on region in shift from Trump

Demonstrators protest against the military coup, holding pictures of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon on Feb. 22.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has been working to set up a foreign ministers' meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Nikkei has learned, in a bid to signal its diplomatic focus on the region and address the situation in Myanmar.

Washington had initially proposed talks with the bloc around Feb. 11, but the plan fell through amid the reluctance of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source. Other options are under consideration, including a meeting involving just members that choose to participate, along with Brunei, which chairs ASEAN this year.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since late January spoken by phone with foreign ministers from individual ASEAN countries, including Thailand and Vietnam. Readouts of calls with counterparts from Singapore and Indonesia note shared "deep concern" about the coup in Myanmar.

By arranging a meeting within the ASEAN framework, the U.S. seeks to show its commitment to contributing actively to peace and stability in the region, particularly after previous President Donald Trump's absence from regional summits left many countries feeling snubbed.

"The U.S. wants to discuss diplomatic issues in general, not just the Myanmar problem," the source said. Washington looks to build partnerships to respond to territorial tensions in the South China Sea as China's influence and assertiveness grow in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with individual ASEAN counterparts on topics including the Myanmar coup.   © Reuters

But the situation in Myanmar will be high on the agenda.

Washington hopes to drum up support for its sanctions, which have so far hit 10 people and three companies for their involvement in the coup or ties to Myanmar's military. Though ASEAN countries steer clear of such measures, owing to the bloc's principle of noninterference in members' internal affairs, the group does place importance on democracy and human rights.

Whether a meeting would achieve anything concrete is far from clear. Myanmar is reluctant to attend a group meeting with the U.S. where it is likely to be a lightning rod for criticism, while Cambodia and Laos are unlikely to come in line with Washington, given their close ties to China.

Several ASEAN members are pushing for groupwide talks to address the Myanmar problem.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a summit this month that they have directed their foreign ministers to propose a meeting on the issue. Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi on Thursday called for an informal ministerial meeting "as soon as possible."

Myanmar's military replaced top cabinet officials after the coup, including the foreign minister -- a post that had been held by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto civilian leader. The military has indicated that it will attend regular foreign ministers' meetings but not special talks, according to a source familiar with the situation.

An ASEAN chairman's statement on Feb. 1, the day that the military seized power, said that "political stability in ASEAN member states is essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous ASEAN community" and encouraged the pursuit of "dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar."

The bloc has avoided coming out too strongly against the coup out of concern that unnecessarily isolating Myanmar would just push the country toward China and India. But as the turmoil there escalates with the killing of protesters, the group has the potential to play a key role in restoring normalcy.

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