Jakarta – Southeast Asian defence ministers meet in Indonesia alongside key players in the Indo-Pacific this week, with the ASEAN bloc set to reinforce a message of centrality as major powers jostle for influence in the region.
The annual get-together, which starts on Wednesday, comes as conflict rages in the Middle East and Ukraine and as tensions ratchet up in disputed waters in the South China Sea, where China is being accused of aggression against the Philippines, which has US backing and seeks to boost its military ties with Japan.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair Indonesia has yet to confirm attendees, but among them is US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will meet ASEAN counterparts on Wednesday.
The talks will expand on Thursday to include Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand and Australia.
ASEAN, a region of about 660 million people with a combined gross domestic product of more than $3.2 trillion, has for years been courted by Washington and Beijing, but their fierce rivalry has caused its members concern.
"Competition is good. But competition should not deteriorate into a zero-sum game," Defence Minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto told a foreign policy forum this week, where he stressed the importance of non-alignment.
Relations between China and the United States have been frosty after President Joe Biden ordered the shooting down in February of a suspected Chinese spy balloon.
It was unclear who will represent China at the Jakarta meeting after the removal of its defence minister in October, raising questions about the stability of the leadership around President Xi Jinping.
Austin comes to Indonesia from South Korea, where he reiterated concerns about Russia and China helping North Korea to evade sanctions and Moscow's closer military ties with Pyongyang.
Washington has accused North Korea of supplying military equipment to Russia for use in its war with Ukraine, and Moscow of providing technical military support to help the North.
Aaron Connelly, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, said conflict in Gaza and Ukraine and China's moves to block Philippine resupply missions at a disputed reef will most likely feature at the meeting.
"This forum is not one where major geopolitical developments are really addressed or moved forward in any significant way. But we do expect discussions from the US and Philippines on topics like the Second Thomas Shoal, Israel-Hamas, Ukraine," Connelly said.