The new head of Asean has a duty to cooperate with neighbours who are suffering the spillover effects of its Rohingya refugee crisis
Myanmar’s chairmanship of Asean began promisingly with a statement at the recent ministerial retreat in Bagan that reaffirms the regional grouping’s position on freedom of navigation and overflights in the East and South China Sea, as well as the Korean Peninsula.
Without saying so, the statement was directed at Beijing’s declaration of an air defence zone above disputed territory in the East China Sea. The Bagan declaration was in line with a statement issued in Tokyo last month when Asean announced a common stance with Japan on the overflight controversy.
The statement from the Bagan retreat took into consideration the concern expressed by Vietnam and the Philippines over China’s new fishing rules in the South China Sea.
The two countries are likely to be affected by the rules because they are situated next to the disputed maritime zone.
Under Beijing’s new measures, foreign vessels must get approval from Chinese authorities before entering the 2 million square kilometres of waters it claims around Hainan Island, situated in the 3.5-million sqkm South China Sea. Hanoi and Manila have protested the Chinese action.
With the Bagan statement, Asean seems to have set the tone on security-related issues for the coming year. This is not to say that Asean is looking to pick a fight with China. The regional grouping wants good ties with both China and Japan, as regional integration depends on their cooperation.
As the chair of Asean in this critical period, Myanmar has its work cut out to promote the collective interest of the regional grouping in its dealings with China and Japan.
Though Myanmar joined Asean 17 years ago, this is its first year at the helm of the regional body. Nay Pyi Taw has said it will use the position to promote domestic stability and prosperity, and also to further boost its growing regional and international profile.
Myanmar has also made clear that its domestic issue with the Rohingya is no one else’s problem.
But while strongly signalling that external relations are high on its list of priorities as Asean leader, Nay Pyi Taw is fooling itself if it thinks it can keep avoiding the issue of Rohingya boat people and their influx into Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Instead, Myanmar can beat Asean and others to the punch by coming clean on its domestic problems and exiting this denial mode. The Rohingya issue is much more than a domestic problem; it’s a regional one.
In a little more than 700 days, Asean will coalesce as a single economic community. By approaching this domestic problem in its wider regional context, Myanmar would be setting a good example for the rest of Asean’s members.
Myanmar shouldn’t be obdurate when it comes to discussing such a sensitive issue – most of its Asean neighbours have similarly difficult domestic issues to contend with. There is no need to be shy about it.