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China and Myanmar likely to be high on the agenda when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Australia

Demonstrators hold placards protesting outside the ASEAN Special Summit in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, March 4, 2024.The small group of members of the Myanmar community held a protest urging ASEAN not to support Myanmar's government. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai) Demonstrators hold placards protesting outside the ASEAN Special Summit in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, March 4, 2024.The small group of members of the Myanmar community held a protest urging ASEAN not to support Myanmar's government. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai)
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MELBOURNE, Australia -

An increasingly assertive China and a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar are likely to be high on the agenda when Southeast Asian leaders meet in Australia for a rare summit this week.

The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit that starts in Melbourne on Monday marks 50 years since Australia became the first official partner of the Asian bloc.

Leaders of nine of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to attend the three-day summit, with Myanmar excluded from political representation over its failure to stem violence in that country since a military junta seized control in 2021. East Timor's leader has been invited as an official ASEAN observer and Australian Prime Anthony Albanese invited his New Zealand counterpart to Melbourne to meet regional leaders.

"Australia sees ASEAN at the centre of a stable, peaceful and prosperous region," Albanese said in a statement on Friday.

"Strengthening our relationship ensures our shared future prosperity and security," he added.

Australia has hosted ASEAN leaders once before in Sydney in 2018. The leaders issued a statement with the host country then that called for a code of conduct covering the contested waters of the South China Sea, where China has become increasingly assertive over its competing territorial claims with a number of ASEAN countries.

Australia and the Philippines, an ASEAN member, conducted joint sea and air patrols in the South China Sea for the first time in November last year.

Also in November, Australia proposed to ASEAN members that they declare in a joint statement at the end of the Melbourne summit their support for the 2016 arbitration ruling in The Hague in favour of the Philippines that invalidated Beijing's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, Australian Broadcasting Corp said in December. China has rejected that ruling.

Other ASEAN countries with territorial claims in conflict with China are Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

China's increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea and violence in Myanmar topped a meeting of ASEAN diplomats in January in Laos, the group's poorest nation, which has taken over the bloc's rotating leadership this year.

International Crisis Group's Asia program deputy director Huong Le Thu, who is attending the summit in Australia, said ASEAN has always been divided over how to approach China, with each member nation maintaining a unique bilateral relationship with the economic giant.

"I don't see the commonality of one approach being feasible. They are working out the best way to manage this power asymmetry that they have with China," Le Thu said.

The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar that hangs over the summit challenges ASEAN's credibility as an organization, she said.

"It poses the question for its existence in the first place: why the countries' governments in the region get together and what is the purpose of this intergovernmental institution if it cannot act on the internal crisis that effects its own organization and the region?" Le Thu said.

Around 200 protesters, mostly from the Myanmar diaspora, demonstrated outside the summit on Monday morning demanding the restoration of democracy in Myanmar and that ASEAN not engage with the country's military leaders.

Australia, as the summit host, is focused on maritime cooperation, economic ties, climate change and clean energy.

Melissa Conley Tyler, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue think tank, expects leaders will focus on what they share in common rather than their differences on issues such as China and Myanmar.

"The focus is very much going to be on how do Australia and the ASEAN countries work together to create a region where we want to live?" said Conley Tyler, who is attending the summit.

"Myanmar is a continuing issue, but I'm not sure it'll be a focus. I feel the focus will be all positive, very future-oriented, talking about what we can do together and building that sense of excitement and momentum," she added.

ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and they have a combined population of more than 650 million and GDP of more than US$3 trillion.

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