ASEAN unity may be under severe strain, but Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from her first ministerial meeting without a scratch on her international reputation, according to analysts, who praised the leader’s diplomacy.

By most measures, the ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting in Laos this week represented a paralysis, if not a deterioration in relations among the bloc. The foreign ministers were confronted with providing a response to China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea, and a recent ruling by an arbitral tribunal in The Hague in favour of the Philippines.

The verdict, announced on July 12 just ahead of the foreign ministers’ meeting in Vientienne, was met by a smattering of individual responses by members of the regional group. While Myanmar has no stake in the maritime feud, the new government produced a statement that was considered more forward-looking than those of its neighbours.

As Myanmar’s new government grapples with its international role and balances between more recent ally the United States and long-time deep-pocketed investor China, the territorial dispute is seen as a sort of mine field, one the previous government had largely avoided. But with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked to polish ASEAN’s international image, her take on the South China Sea could carry substantial influence.

After hours behind closed doors, the ASEAN foreign ministers yesterday did eventually produce a joint communiqué. Cambodia’s foreign minister had reportedly stalled the consensus, the only country to oppose a joint statement on China’s aggressive expansion into the disputed territory.

After the initial stalemate, the foreign minsters eventually accepted a joint statement that briefly addressed the dispute, noting in one paragraph that “some ministers” had expressed concern over the “escalation of activities in the area”.

U Than Soe Naing, a political analyst, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi handled the political deadlock – and the risk of alienating her Chinese counterpart – with diplomatic aplomb.

“It would be very dangerous for Myanmar if she could not handle this situation diplomatically. Hanging in the balance was her image as a leader of the ASEAN, and her first visit to the ASEAN meetings,” he said.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the regional bloc’s meeting on July 24. China has been trying hard to lobby Myanmar to restart several stalled projects, including hydropower dams and mines. Mr Wang invited the state counsellor on a trip to China. The two did not separately discuss the South China Sea, according to an official at the ASEAN affairs department.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Thai journalist and ASEAN affairs expert, said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi bore her dual role as state counsellor and foreign minister with diplomatic restraint.

“Southeast Asia’s politics are changing, and Myanmar is leading the way,” he said.

Link: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/21564-daw-aung-san-suu-kyi-praised-after-first-asean-meet.html