PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Indonesia’s president vowed Sunday not to let Southeast Asia become the front lines of a new Cold War amid increasing tensions between the United States and China, saying as his country took over the chairmanship of the influential Association of Southeast Asian Nations that it would not become “a proxy to any powers.”
Joko Widodo said the 10-nation bloc with a combined population of some 700 million people “must be a dignified region” and “uphold the values of humanity and democracy” — principles that have been challenged by last year’s military takeover in Myanmar and concerns about human rights in Cambodia.
“ASEAN must become a peaceful region and anchor for global stability, consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy to any powers,” he said. “ASEAN should not let the current geopolitical dynamic turn into a new Cold War in our region.”
As China has grown more assertive in the Asia-Pacific and pressed its claim to the self-governing democracy of Taiwan, the U.S. has pushed back, leading to increasing tensions.
Even as the ASEAN leaders met over the weekend in Phnom Penh, U.S. naval exercises with its partners in the so-called “Quad” group of nations — Australia, India and Japan — were underway in the Philippine Sea, east of Taiwan.
And on Saturday, China’s military flew 36 fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan, ten of which flew across the median line in the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from the mainland, according to Taiwanese officials.
The flights come as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stepped up efforts to intimidate Taiwan by regularly flying fighter planes and bombers near the island and firing missiles into the sea around it.
In Sunday’s East Asia Summit, which ran concurrently with the ASEAN meeting and included both the U.S. and China, U.S. President Joe Biden underscored that freedom of navigation and overflight must be respected in the East China and South China seas and that all disputes must be resolved peacefully and according to international law, according to the White House.
Biden said the U.S. will compete vigorously with China while keeping lines of communication open and ensuring that competition does not veer into conflict, while reaffirming the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, the White House said.
The comments came just a day before a highly anticipated meeting between Biden and Xi at the Group of 20 summit in Bali.
In Japan’s meetings with ASEAN leaders, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also singled out China, expressing “serious concern over unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China seas as well as economic coercion,” Japan’s Foreign Ministry said.
“He also pointed out the importance of the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and highly valued ASEAN’s call for utmost restraint.”
At the opening of the East Asia Summit, Cambodian leader Hun Sen called for unity, telling the gathering attended by Biden, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that current global tensions have been taking a toll on everyone.
Without singling out any nation by name, Hun Sen said he hoped leaders would embrace a “spirit of togetherness in upholding open and inclusive multilateralism, pragmatism and mutual respect in addressing the existential and strategic challenges we all face.”
“Many current challenges and tensions have been hindering our past hard-earned efforts to promote sustainable development and causing greater hardship to people’s lives,” he said.
Li Keqiang, meantime, told a meeting of ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea that amid a “turbulent” global security situation, “unilateralism and protectionism are surging, economic and financial risks are rising, and global development is confronted with unprecedented challenges.”
As major economies in East Asia, Li said the group needed to “stay committed to promoting peace, stability, development and prosperity in the region and beyond, and to improving the people’s wellbeing.”
The East Asia Summit also included the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and others.
Biden raised human rights concerns in Cambodia when he met with Hun Sen on Saturday. In a statement after the meeting, the White House said Biden urged the prime minister — an authoritarian ruler in a nominally democratic nation — to “reopen civic and political space” before its 2023 elections.
Biden, according to the White House, also pushed Hun Sen to release activists including Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer who was convicted of treason. Biden also raised concerns about activities at Ream Naval Base, whose expansion Cambodian officials have described as a collaborative effort between it and China.
Another topic Biden focused on was Myanmar, where the military overthrew the civilian government in February 2021 and arrested its democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. As he met with Hun Sen, Biden stressed that the U.S. was committed to the return of democracy in Myanmar, which had steadily headed toward a democratic form of governance before the takeover.
ASEAN has been struggling to get Myanmar to implement its five-point peace plan. The group has already banned leaders of Myanmar, a member state, from participating in its top-level events, such as the Phnom Penh summit.
ASEAN’s plan calls for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all parties, mediation by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid and a visit to Myanmar by the special envoy to meet all sides. Myanmar’s government initially agreed to the plan but has made little effort to implement it.
ASEAN leaders agreed on a plan Friday that largely puts the onus on the upcoming Indonesian chairmanship of the group to develop measurable indicators and a timeline for Myanmar to implement the five-point consensus.