EXCLUDING Myanmar, foreign ministers from southeast Asia will gather for the first time this year on Monday in Laos, amid challenges of rising tension in the South China Sea and the unresolved humanitarian and political crisis in Myanmar.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo will skip the retreat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) because it coincides with the state visit of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. to Vietnam.
DFA Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and Asean matters Theresa Lazaro will represent Manalo instead.
Aside from the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, the countries of 10-member Asean are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia. For years, the bloc has emerged as a middle power, playing a pivotal role in keeping peace and stability and the engine of economic growth of the Asia-Pacific region.
Laos, which took its turn to chair this year, will host the Asean Foreign Ministers Retreat in its mountainous northern province of Luan Prabang. Laos’s theme for its chairmanship in 2024 is “Enhancing Connectivity and Resilience.”
Foreign affairs analysts told BusinessMirror that they do not expect Laos to advance one of the key geopolitical concerns in southeast Asia—the South China Sea dispute.
Laos, the only landlocked country in southeast Asia, has a robust trade relationship with China, with US$5.68 billion in bilateral trade, Xinhua’s subsidiary China Economic Information Service (CEIS) reported.
The communist state greatly benefited from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiative, including the benchmark China-Laos railway. However, its public debt has reached approximately US$15.9 billion in 2023, equivalent to 125 percent of GDP. Half of Laos’s external debt is owed to China.
“For the past years, the trend in Asean is not to dwell on geopolitical issues, which is not exactly what Asean is for. So we are not expecting that this trend will change under Laos’s chairmanship,” a senior diplomat said.
Laos will focus on the economic agenda to improve “connectivity” —physical infrastructure such as highways, railways, ports and airports. Laos, one of the smallest and poorest countries among Asean members, has no direct flights outside Asia.
On the challenge of resilience, Laos would like to steer the region in helping solve the disruption of supply chains brought about by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and possibly by the attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Black Sea.
Asean ministerial retreats are usually brainstorming sessions where foreign ministers can discuss any topic they deemed important.
One of the pending issues that will likely crop up is the problem of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s military took over power in 2020, and had since refused to heed the Five-Point Consensus that Asean leaders have laid out to resolve the civil strife. Its foreign minister Daw Zin Mar Aung is barred from attending the retreat.
Meanwhile, East Timorese foreign minister Bendito Freitas will attend the AMM Retreat. East Timor is poised to become the bloc’s 11th member.