BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said on Thursday it has agreed with China to upgrade their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, a day after reaching a similar deal with Australia.
Australia's clinching of the elevated partnership was a symbolic win for Canberra in getting ahead of China in securing the first such deal with the Southeast Asia region, which has become a strategic battleground between Beijing and Washington.
The announcement was made by Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah during a news conference at which he was asked about Myanmar's future attendance of ASEAN events, after its junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led a coup in February, was excluded from a series of Asian summits this week.
"Myanmar is an integral part of the ASEAN family and their membership has not been questioned," he said, asked if Myanmar could even be expelled from the bloc.
"ASEAN will always be there for Myanmar and we have continued to offer help through the implementation of the five-point consensus."
Min Aung Hlaing was sidelined over his failure to implement that "consensus", which he agreed with ASEAN in April, committing to ending hostilities, start dialogue and facilitate humanitarian aid and mediation efforts by a special ASEAN envoy.
"For this meeting, we have given Myanmar space while firmly upholding the principles enshrined in the ASEAN charter including that of non-interference," the sultan said.
Speaking at a separate news conference, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said it was unclear if Myanmar would join future ASEAN meetings and stressed the no-show this week was Myanmar's call.
Asked if it would continue to be part of ASEAN events, Saifuddin Abdullah said: "That's the one million dollar question which I cannot answer."