ASEAN Summit Grapples with Complex Challenges Amid Biden’s Absence

by Chloe Baker
ASEAN Summit Challenges

Gathered for their final annual summit, leaders of Southeast Asian nations, spearheaded by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, find themselves mired in a labyrinth of unresolved issues. These range from the persistent internal conflict in Myanmar and renewed tensions in the disputed South China Sea, to the enduring geopolitical struggle between the United States and China.

The series of meetings for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is slated to begin on Tuesday in Jakarta, Indonesia, under heightened security measures. The absence of U.S. President Joe Biden from these proceedings casts a further pall over the traditional ceremonies and collective engagements that usually underscore the unity of this 10-member bloc.

Subsequent to Tuesday’s internal deliberations, the ASEAN leadership will engage in broader discussions with Asian and Western allies from Wednesday through Thursday. These interactions have historically served as platforms for extensive dialogue on subjects like free trade, climate change, and global security, but have also been arenas for Sino-American competition.

China’s Premier Li Qiang is scheduled to participate in the meetings, including the 18-nation East Asia Summit, where he will encounter U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, attending in lieu of President Biden, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

While Biden has chosen to forgo the ASEAN summit, he will be journeying to Asia for the G20 Summit in India and a subsequent state visit to Vietnam. U.S. officials have downplayed the implication that ASEAN is being sidestepped in America’s foreign policy focus. At a recent press briefing in Washington, John Kirby, a national security spokesperson, emphasized the administration’s sustained commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

Previously, in November, President Biden was present at ASEAN summit meetings held in Cambodia, and in May 2022, he hosted several ASEAN leaders at the White House. This was aimed at signaling Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia, even as it navigates challenges such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Marty Natalegawa, a distinguished former foreign minister of Indonesia, voiced concern over Biden’s nonattendance. However, he asserted that the more acute issue is the diminishing influence of ASEAN on the global stage.

ASEAN, founded in 1967, operates on a principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its member states and mandates unanimous consensus for decisions. This approach has resulted in a heterogeneous membership but has also limited the bloc’s capacity to impose sanctions for state-perpetrated abuses.

Natalegawa highlighted ASEAN’s inadequate response to human rights abuses in Myanmar and its muted reaction to recent confrontations in the South China Sea as exemplars of the organization’s waning significance. He pointed out that member states are increasingly turning to either the U.S. or China for security support.

Concerns over Myanmar’s internal conflict and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are poised to overshadow the summit’s agenda yet again. Although Indonesia has sought to shift the narrative toward economic growth under the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth,” these pressing geopolitical and security dilemmas persist.

The European Union has signaled that its relationship with ASEAN could be strained if Myanmar assumes any leadership role within the bloc. In response, Myanmar’s military government has indicated it may relinquish its scheduled chairmanship in 2026, according to confidential sources within the diplomatic community.

There are also questions about Myanmar fulfilling its three-year role as coordinator for ASEAN-EU relations starting next year. Myanmar’s military figures have been excluded from attending ASEAN summits due to non-compliance with a peace plan designed to halt violence and initiate dialogue with opposition parties.

Since the military coup in Myanmar, approximately 4,000 individuals have been killed and over 24,400 arrested, as per data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

In a bid to make the organization more responsive, ASEAN member states are considering amending rules to allow decision-making even in the absence of full consensus. Dinna Prapto Raharja, a Jakarta-based international relations analyst and professor, emphasized that the credibility of ASEAN is at stake if it remains ineffectual in addressing ongoing crises.

“As time goes by, all these opportunities simply evaporate,” Raharja noted.

Contributions to this report were made by Big Big News journalists Jim Gomez and Andi Jatmiko in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Christopher Megerian in Washington.

For additional coverage on Asia-Pacific issues, visit

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about ASEAN Summit Challenges

What are the primary issues discussed at the latest ASEAN summit?

The article outlines several pressing issues that ASEAN leaders are grappling with, including Myanmar’s ongoing civil conflict, renewed tensions in the South China Sea, and the longstanding rivalry between the United States and China.

Why is the absence of U.S. President Joe Biden notable?

President Joe Biden’s absence is particularly significant because it casts a shadow over the unity of the 10-member ASEAN bloc. This has also led to discussions about whether the United States is deprioritizing its relationship with Southeast Asian nations.

What is the reaction within ASEAN to Biden’s absence?

Marty Natalegawa, a former foreign minister of Indonesia, expressed disappointment over Biden’s non-appearance but indicated that the deeper issue is ASEAN’s own declining relevance on the international stage.

What is the European Union’s stance towards ASEAN in relation to Myanmar?

The European Union has warned that its relationship with ASEAN could be compromised if Myanmar assumes any leadership role within the bloc, especially considering the ongoing human rights abuses in that country.

What changes are being considered within ASEAN’s decision-making process?

Member states are contemplating amendments to ASEAN’s rules that would allow for decisions to be made even when full consensus among member states is lacking. This is seen as a necessary step for the organization to respond more effectively to crises.

What are the consequences of ASEAN’s failure to address the Myanmar crisis and South China Sea tensions effectively?

The article highlights that ASEAN’s inadequacy in these matters has led to its declining influence, as member states are increasingly turning to either the U.S. or China for security support. This has also placed ASEAN’s credibility on the line.

How many people have been affected by the Myanmar military coup?

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, about 4,000 individuals have been killed and over 24,400 arrested since the military takeover in Myanmar.

What is the summit’s focus theme this year and how successful has it been?

This year, Indonesia has tried to swing the focus toward economic growth with the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth.” However, geopolitical and security issues have continued to dominate the discussions.

More about ASEAN Summit Challenges

  • ASEAN Official Website
  • U.S. Department of State: U.S.-ASEAN Relations
  • European Union and ASEAN Relations
  • Assistance Association for Political Prisoners: Myanmar Coup Data
  • South China Sea Disputes: An Overview
  • U.S.-China Relations: Policy Documents and Reports

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Sarah G. September 4, 2023 - 5:19 am

it’s not just about Biden not being there. ASEAN has its own internal problems. I mean, look at Myanmar, that’s a mess.

John D. September 4, 2023 - 5:58 am

Wow, the absence of Biden is really telling, huh? makes you think if the US is taking a step back from ASEAN matters.

Mike O. September 4, 2023 - 6:09 am

Was really hoping this summit would yield some actionable steps, especially for the Myanmar crisis. Guess it’s just the same old talk again.

Sophia W. September 4, 2023 - 7:05 am

Marty Natalegawa’s comment hit the nail on the head. ASEAN’s declining relevance is the real issue, not just a single country’s participation or lack thereof.

Rachel M. September 4, 2023 - 9:50 am

Really comprehensive article. Covers everything from geopolitics to human rights. Kudos to the author.

Emily L. September 4, 2023 - 2:05 pm

I found the part about ASEAN’s decision-making process super interesting. If they change that, it could be a game changer for their international roles.

Timothy K. September 4, 2023 - 4:48 pm

So the EU warns ASEAN about Myanmar, but what are they actually doing to help the situation? Words are easy, actions are hard.

Alex B. September 4, 2023 - 8:40 pm

That part about 4,000 people dead in Myanmar since the coup is horrifying. Where’s the global outrage?


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