Channel NewsAsia

MH17 likely to be key topic at ASEAN meeting

The tragic incident of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was allegedly shot down over Ukraine last month, is likely to be a key topic for discussion when ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Myanmar this week.

SINGAPORE: The tragic incident of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was allegedly shot down over Ukraine last month, is likely to be a key topic for discussion when ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Myanmar this week.

Political analysts say this is expected as Russia, a key player in the conflict in Ukraine, will be represented at the meetings as one of ASEAN's dialogue partners. Observers also expect Malaysia to set the tone during the regional grouping's engagements with Russia.

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has strongly condemned the downing of MH17, and its leaders have called for a full, independent and transparent investigation to find out what exactly happened to the passenger plane. The US and Ukraine say the plane was probably shot down by a missile fired by pro-Russian rebels.

Political analysts say ASEAN should stand with Malaysia on the incident.

Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said: "On many issues, ASEAN will always let the country most concerned to take the lead, and set the tone. So I hope that the Malaysians will in this role set the tone for the rest of ASEAN. We have no particular reason to beat up on Russia. Certainly, there is no need to go and slap Putin (Russian President Vladimir Putin) in the face."

Co-incidentally, Malaysia will co-chair ASEAN's meeting with Russia. But observers also believe it is unlikely that Malaysia or ASEAN will be overly direct in demanding answers from Russia over the incident.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, lead researcher at ASEAN Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said: "That will be an ideal occasion for Malaysia representing ASEAN to request Russian support for a thorough investigation of the downing of MH17. I think that will be a fair position for ASEAN to take. They will just ask for information, and to encourage (the) Russian foreign minister to share information, because we always want to know from the Russian perspective how they see the situation in Ukraine, how they are going to support investigation of the downing of MH17."

The MH17 incident and the conflict in Gaza have dominated headlines around the world in recent weeks. But the territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain a hot button issue for ASEAN, and observers hope for some progress in the coming weeks. Tensions in the South China Sea have simmered after China removed its oil rigs from the contested waters.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap said: "At least the world's media attention is no longer on the South China Sea, although there are still problems over there. So, this will be a quieter time for ASEAN and China to come up with new positive ideas on how to manage the situation and prevent new tensions, new conflicts."

At the ASEAN meetings, the US is expected to press for a voluntary freeze on actions that could escalate tensions in the South China Sea. The Philippines, which is one of the claimant states, has also proposed a similar moratorium. But Beijing has rejected this idea.

Associate Professor Simon Tay said: "Sometimes the right idea must come from the right person, and at the right time. Even if it's a good idea, I think I can understand why the Chinese say 'hey, is this another trick?', 'Is this another stratagem to keep us from what the Chinese see as their rightful claim?'. I would say that the better approach is through the ongoing consultations on the Code of Conduct which involves all of ASEAN."

ASEAN foreign ministers are also expected to take stock of the group's community-building efforts. The 10 member countries are working towards an integrated economic, political and cultural community by next year. In addition, a post-2015 vision is expected to be discussed to bring ASEAN forward to its next stage of development.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia