Latest News

Key Challenges Await Harris at ASEAN Summit in Jakarta

Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Jakarta next week, meeting leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in a summit hosted by Indonesia as the outgoing chair of the 10-nation group. She will also be attending the East Asia Summit, which will bring together ASEAN and a disparate group of partners: the United States, China, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

ASEAN as a group adheres to the principles of nonalignment, consensus-based decision-making and noninterference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Those principles contribute to the group’s ambiguity and ineffectiveness in addressing geopolitical issues that are the key focus of next week’s meetings, including:

South China Sea disputes

China says it has sovereignty over most of the waters with its expansive “Nine-Dash Line,” overlapping claims by Taiwan and four ASEAN members: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Just days before the summits, Beijing released its annual “standard map,” which adds a new “dash” to its claim, angering Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and India.

Negotiations for a binding code of conduct on this vital maritime route have been ongoing for nearly three decades, and a solution remains elusive. Earlier this year, Beijing and ASEAN agreed on new guidelines to accelerate talks amid militarization by claimants, including construction of artificial islands, primarily by China.

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks alongside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during a news conference, Aug. 18, 2023, at Camp David in Maryland.

Earlier in August, President Joe Biden and leaders of Japan and South Korea pledged a unified trilateral response during a regional crisis, for the first time explicitly highlighting Beijing’s “aggressive behavior” in the waters.

Harris is also expected to be forward-leaning on the issue. She will reaffirm support for “freedom of the seas, peaceful resolution of disputes and an adherence of international law, including freedom of navigation,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told VOA during her briefing to press Thursday.

While in the region last year, in a rebuke to Beijing, Harris stopped by Palawan, an island in the Philippines, just 330 kilometers east of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Violence in Myanmar

Thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced since the 2021 military coup in Myanmar as ASEAN, with Brunei, Cambodia and Indonesia as chairs, failed to compel it to return to democracy. Member states remain divided, with Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia condemning the coup through a 2021 resolution at the U.N. General Assembly, while Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand abstained.

Since ASEAN policies are driven by its rotating chair, even less progress is expected when Indonesia hands leadership over to Laos. And with Myanmar on tap to chair ASEAN in 2026, the group is running out of time to develop an effective Myanmar policy to handle the potential rupture.

FILE - U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris waves as she arrives at Black Star square to address young people in Accra, Ghana, March 28, 2023. She'll be representing the United States at two key summits in Jakarta, Indonesia, in early September.

The U.S has imposed various sanctions to choke the junta in Myanmar, the latest round in August targeting those linked to jet fuel procurement for the military. Harris will likely repeat Washington’s condemnation of the coup and appeals for the country to return to democracy.

War on Ukraine

Individually, member states have divergent perceptions of Russia, a key arms supplier in the region. Therefore, as is the case with Myanmar and the South China Sea, the bloc has had a muted reaction to the war on Ukraine, expressing only concerns about the fallout of the conflict without condemning Moscow.

American allies Singapore and the Philippines are the staunchest critics of the war, with Singapore joining the Western sanctions regime against Russia. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Myanmar, whose military-installed government supports Moscow’s invasion and the narrative that the war is an act of self-defense against Western expansion.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have deep historical and defense ties with the Kremlin, while Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Thailand aim to project neutrality, consistent with the bloc’s tradition of nonalignment amid great-power rivalries.

Ahead of his meeting with ASEAN leaders in Phnom Penh last year, Biden called out “Russia's brutal war against Ukraine.” In Jakarta, Harris is expected to use similarly strong language and renew calls to address the war's global impacts.

Where’s Biden?

Some of the focus will be on Biden's skipping the summit and sending Harris in his place. His aides have pointed out the president’s “unbelievable track record” in engaging the region. Biden attended the summits in Phnom Penh last year and virtually in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In May 2022, he hosted a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington.

Following his meetings with leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, on September 9, Biden heads to Hanoi, where he is expected to upgrade bilateral relations with Vietnam.

Source: Voice of America