Myanmar on the agenda as Asian, US defence chiefs meet in Indonesia

Regional tensions, conflict in the Middle East, and the war in Ukraine are also expected to be discussed at the two-day meeting

Southeast Asian defence ministers gathered in Indonesia on Wednesday for two days of talks that will include meetings with regional counterparts and the Pentagon chief, as tensions mount in the Asia-Pacific and conflicts rage in the Middle East and Ukraine.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin will meet with defence chiefs of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Wednesday before wider talks a day later over a region where Washington and Beijing are battling for influence.

Thursday’s expanded talks will include representatives from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Russia.

The meetings in Jakarta are expected to be dominated by issues ranging from the Myanmar crisis to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza to Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo this week called on US President Joe Biden to do more to end “atrocities” in Gaza and help bring about a ceasefire.

His defence minister Prabowo Subianto opened talks on Wednesday echoing that call, saying he was “deeply saddened” by events in the Palestinian enclave, where Israel has launched a relentless assault to destroy Hamas in response to attacks on October 7, killing over 10,000 residents according to a UN estimate.

Subianto also said current ASEAN chair Jakarta is seeking a resolution to the Myanmar crisis, which has rolled on as the bloc’s diplomatic efforts have faltered.

“Indonesia encourages other ASEAN member states to support Myanmar to find a peaceful and durable solution to the current situation,” he told delegates.

The junta’s leaders have been banned from the bloc’s high-level meetings since failing to implement an agreed five-point peace plan following a 2021 coup.

The Jakarta talks come ahead of an eagerly awaited meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in San Francisco on Wednesday, the first encounter in a year between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.

Trade tensions, sanctions, the question of Taiwan, and Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea have fuelled quarrels between the rival superpowers.

The Pentagon has not confirmed if Austin will meet with Beijing’s representative at the Jakarta talks.

China’s moves in the disputed waterway have angered several ASEAN members, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In September, the Southeast Asian bloc held its first-ever joint exercises in Indonesia as it battles perceptions of regional irrelevance.

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