Southeast Asian foreign ministers will seek ways to help quell the diplomatic storm over Taiwan at regional talks Wednesday, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived on the island, enraging Beijing.
Pelosi’s dramatic late-night flight to Taipei, defying threats of reprisals by China, looks set to dominate the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh, which had been expected to tackle the bloody crisis in Myanmar.
Attention will focus instead on Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his American counterpart Antony Blinken—both flying into the Cambodian capital for regional security talks with ASEAN on Thursday and Friday.
ASEAN spokesman Kung Phoak, Cambodia’s deputy foreign minister, said the meeting would seek to calm the waters.
He told reporters that ministers would try to find ways the bloc could help “so that the situation in Taiwan will be stable, that won’t lead to a conflict and won’t escalate the political heat between all concerned parties.”
Late Tuesday, China vowed there would be “targeted military actions” in response to Pelosi’s visiting the self-ruled island Beijing claims as part of its territory.
The 10-member bloc is split between countries with close ties to China, such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, and others that are more wary of Beijing and its growing international assertiveness.
But no ASEAN country formally recognizes Taiwan and it is not clear what the bloc might do to ease the crisis between the two superpowers.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, opening the meeting as chair of ASEAN, condemned Myanmar for executing four prisoners last month in defiance of widespread international pleas for clemency.
Myanmar was plunged into violent turmoil when the military seized power last year, ousting Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. The death toll from the subsequent junta crackdown has passed 2,100, according to local monitors.
ASEAN, long derided as a toothless talking shop that gives political cover to repressive regimes, has spearheaded thus far fruitless efforts to restore peace and voiced anger at the hangings.
Hun Sen said the bloc was “disappointed and disturbed” by the executions and warned that further use of capital punishment would mean a “rethink” of the five-point peace plan agreed to last year with Myanmar.
The plan calls for an immediate end to violence and dialogue between the junta and coup opponents.
But the ministers—meeting face-to-face for the first time since the pandemic—are expected to lament the lack of progress, and Malaysia has said it would present a framework for implementing the plan.
Myanmar itself is not being represented at the meeting after the other members said they would not accept a junta minister and the generals refused to send another official instead.
In a highly visible snub to the regime, a place was set for the Myanmar delegation at the negotiating table, complete with flag, and the chair left empty.
Some member states, led by Malaysia and the Philippines, are pushing to bar the military regime from sending ministers to any ASEAN meetings—including November’s summit—until there is progress on the five-point plan.
In addition to Taiwan, the ongoing South China Sea tensions will be another hot-button issue on the agenda.
Beijing claims most of the sea—with competing territorial assertions from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Cambodia—a key Beijing ally—last hosted ASEAN in 2012 and was accused of siding with China over the disputed and resource-rich waters, resulting in no communique being issued.
But based on the progress of a senior officials’ meeting, Kung Phoak said he was confident a consensus could be reached and a joint statement released.
“I’m confident things are moving in the right direction. We’re almost there,” he said Tuesday.
Alongside Blinken and Wang, Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov – who landed in Myanmar for talks with the junta before travelling on to Cambodia – and the European Union’s Josep Borrell will attend meetings with ASEAN counterparts later in the week.
Ministers are expected to grapple with issues ranging from the Russia-Ukraine conflict to North Korean missile tests and regional security concerns.