Evaluating Cambodia’s Role as ASEAN Chair
Prof Rajaram Panda

Since the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration, also known as Bangkok Declaration, by the Founding Fathers of ASEAN: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and further expanded by the induction of Brunei Darussalam on 7 January 1984, followed by Viet Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999, ASEAN has emerged as one of the most effective regional organisation in terms of dispute resolution mechanism as well as contributing to mutual economic cooperation among the member states. That has come under threat of being undermined.

The ASEAN Chair is held on rotational basis among the ten members. For the current year 2022, Cambodia officially took over the chairmanship of the organisation from Brunei Darussalam on 28 October 2021. This is the third time that Cambodia became Chair since joining the group in 1999. All eyes are now on Cambodia as it takes up the leadership role to realise the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and strives to maintain peace and stability, integrate the markets and leave no one behind through the three Community pillars: political-security community, economic community and socio-cultural community.

What can one expect from Cambodia as ASEAN Chair? Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has remained in power for almost 37 years and would expect some recognition by the outside world the way he functions and carves out policies for the organisation. Cambodia realises that Brunei, the Chair for 2021, had hogged international limelight by hosting several ASEAN meetings and summits, including one with US President Joe Biden. Brunei was also invited by the Group of 20 (G-20), which comprises the world’s major economies, a major recognition to Brunei. Hun Sen would surely look for such 15 minutes of fame during Cambodia holding the ASEAN Chair. [1]

Hun Sen’s Approach towards Myanmar Crisis

While inaugurating the new Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh Hotel on 15 December 2021, Hun Sen revealed two ambitious goals Cambodia wishes to accomplish in 2022 as Chair of ASEAN. He hopes to see improvement in Myanmar crisis and for ASEAN to return to functioning with its usual 10-member bloc. [2] He also committed to get the predominantly Buddhist country Myanmar on board during the summit despite the coup in February 2021 and end of the military rule as he felt that without Myanmar, the ASEAN would not be complete. With such intention, Hun Sen travelled to Myanmar on 7 January 2022 for talks with General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC). Hun Sen also appointed his Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn as the ASEAN envoy entrusted with the task of dealing with the Myanmar crisis. Sokhonn will be supported in that role by Minister of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation Cham Prasidh, a veteran negotiator who previously served as Commerce Minister for 15 years.

Hun Sen was perturbed that the recent ASEAN summit without Myanmar set a bad precedent for the future, allowing any ASEAN Chair to exclude any of the other members from summits for potentially any reason.

The world has seen that Myanmar has drifted into violence since the military’s February coup, with over 1,000 civilians losing their lives. Initially, Hun Sen was reluctant to speak out against the junta, citing ASEAN’s principle of non-interference but later accepted ASEAN’s decision to accept only a “non-political” representative from Myanmar, thereby excluding the junta from the virtual summit hosted by Brunei in October 2021. That time, Hun Sen had argued that ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN framework but Myanmar abandoned its right, creating a situation of ASEAN minus one, which was not because of ASEAN but because of Myanmar.

By the time when the chairmanship came to Cambodia, Myanmar had drifted into a civil war. The choice left for Hun Sen was to go for backdoor diplomacy as the rest of the nine members were not on the same page. Since Cambodia’s perspective on democracy, human rights or other principles of democratic governance conflicted with those held by Malaysia, Indonesia and others; Hun Sen is seen to have aligned himself with the junta’s interests in Myanmar and having indirectly endorsed the junta’s repressive measures. Known for his pro-China leanings, Hun Sen was also seen to have kept in mind the interests of Chinese investments in Myanmar, thereby differing from the rest of the grouping in ASEAN’s Myanmar policy.

Majority of the ASEAN members are aware of Cambodia’s close alignment with China for years and whenever Cambodia becomes the ASEAN Chair, the rest of the members are worried about Cambodia’s China policy since it is feared that the centrality of the organisation could be marginalised. Moreover, America has little leverage over Phnom Penh to wean it away from China’s strong influence.

In order to project Cambodia’s Myanmar policy as “well-intentioned”, Hun Sen dispatched senior minister Sokhonn to Germany to enhance the country’s global image to discuss with senior German diplomat Petra Sigmund, Director-General for Asia and the Pacific at the German Federal Foreign Office, on 26 January for talks on bilateral relations and other issues of ASEAN, including Myanmar.[3] Sokhonn told Sigmund Cambodia’s intention to help Myanmar return to normalcy, end violence and achieve peace and national reconciliation. Sokhonn briefed Sigmund on Hun Sen’s recent visit to Myanmar, and exuded optimism that the visit would pave the way for a step-by-step progress in the implementation of the ASEAN five-point consensus (5PC).[4] Sokhonn was emphatic in remarking that the peace process must be "Myanmar-led and Myanmar-owned".

Cambodia’s Policy on Covid-19

Hun Sen’s policy towards controlling the spread of Covid-19 has already come under flak. ASEAN was battling with the massive spread of the virus, with Vietnam earning accolades and emerged as the model state in taking timely measures to control the spread of the virus and seen for others to emulate Vietnam’s example; Cambodia’s handling was seen as irresponsible. Cambodia declared itself fully reopened and schools returned to offline mode from 1 November 2021.

The spread of Covid-19 pandemic required relentless collective efforts by all the 10 members in the grouping to adopt measures so that the region’s inequality and social divisions are not further exacerbated. Political instability in Myanmar added further to this challenge. How Cambodia as the ASEAN Chair handles health security is yet to be seen. Since the economies of all 10 members were severely hit, the fiscal responses under Cambodia’s leadership could throw up some challenges. Global interest rates have started rising. Local currencies are coming under increased pressure. This means increased borrowing costs. As a result, smaller countries are being forced to limit their expansionary macroeconomic policies.

In such critical situation, ASEAN had to look for support from outside. Though the ASEAN needed to engage with a host of major powers engaging them at multilateral level, China was too happy to intrude into this ASEAN space with Cambodia’s support. This was clearly against the organisation’s long term interests as China has hardly engaged financially out of charity but to maximise its own interests and consolidate influence. This has been the larger agenda of China and Cambodia was just a willing partner to help China’s cause. Such policy on Cambodia’s part was not clearly on what the ASEAN aspires for as a regional entity. The end result was increased tensions within the ASEAN. If this is the case, one can judge how Cambodia has been discharging its responsibility as the ASEAN Chair.

Cambodia and South China Sea

Hun Sen wants that the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea to be adopted by all concerned parties at the ASEAN summit some time later this year. Given Cambodia’s close ties with China and with the possibility of China not agreeing to the COC, Hun Sen has stated in advance that if the COC cannot be concluded in 2022, Cambodia cannot be faulted as it was in 2012 when the country last chaired the ASEAN. That time, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement for the first time.

At that time Cambodia had refused to accept the language in the drafted joint statement criticising China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. With Cambodia’s support guaranteed, China is emboldened to increase its aggressiveness in South China Sea and has already militarised, besides building islands. Cambodia is always sensitive whenever security issues are raised and therefore uncomfortable whenever South China Sea is raised. As a member of the organisation, Cambodia finds it difficult at times to outright block but tries pushing the South China Sea issue off the agenda as much as possible. With Cambodia’s known pro-China proclivities and ASEAN’s consensus-based process it is unlikely that a COC will be finalised anytime soon, not at least during when Cambodia is holding the ASEAN Chair. Also, given the growing US-China rivalry and ASEAN’s reluctance to take side, it would be interesting to see how Cambodia navigates its policies towards China while not compromising the interests of the organisation. Cambodia has its own vulnerabilities. It counts on China for nearly 90 per cent of its foreign direct investment and reportedly signed a deal that will give Chinese forces access to a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia not only supported China on human rights abuses at the United Nations but also banned the Taiwanese flag from being displayed in Cambodia, implying that it endorses China’s Taiwan policy. Such policies are not necessarily in conformity with the rest of the members in the grouping. It thus transpires that ASEAN’s interests may not be served best under Cambodia’s chairmanship.

The Rohingya issue in Myanmar has also emerged as an international issue. More than 1.1 million Rohingyas have taken refuge in Bangladesh since August 2017 due to genocide and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It is estimated that 50,000 newborn Rohingya children are added to it every year.[5] Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen who spoke with Sokhonn impressed upon him that it is a great opportunity for Cambodia as ASEAN Chair to take leadership role in facilitating safe and dignified return of the Rohingyas sheltered in Bangladesh to Myanmar.

With such a pro-China bias, Cambodia’s role as the ASEAN Chair would be severely tested. Preserving the organisation’s centrality is the biggest challenge for the rest of the members in the grouping. Given Cambodia’s pro-China leaning, there seems to be little hope that Cambodia can play a meaningful role in maintaining unity within the organisation.

According to the ASEAN Charter that is open for interpretation, the annually-rotating chair is merely supposed to play host to what is essentially a gentleman’s club: to organize the two ASEAN summits that take place each year, to represent the bloc on the world stage (such as at G-20 meetings), and to arrange the numerous ministerial meetings between member states. [6] However, Article 32, which describes the role of the chairman, leaves room for more. The chair is supposed to: “ensure an effective and timely response to urgent issues or crisis situations affecting ASEAN, including providing its good offices and such other arrangements to immediately address these concerns.” Even more broadly, Section (e) of this article states that the holder is to: “carry out such other tasks and functions as may be mandated.” From Cambodia’s recent policies, it transpires that there is little room to feel optimistic that Cambodia shall stand up to the spirit enshrined in the ASEAN Charter.

Endnotes:

[1] “What to Expect of Cambodia as ASEAN Chair”, 4 November 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/what-expect-cambodia-asean-chair
[2]Ry Sochan, “PM outlines ambitious new year as ASEAN chair”, 15 December 2021, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/pm-outlines-ambitious-new-year-asean-chair; “Cambodia's Hun Sen outlines ambitious new year as Asean chair”, 16 December 2021, https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2021/12/16/cambodia039s-hun-sen-outlines-ambitious-new-year-as-asean-chair
[3]Mom Kunthear, “Sokhonn, Germany's Sigmund talk Myanmar, bilateral ties”, 28 January 2022, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/sokhonn-germanys-sigmund-talk-myanmar-bilateral-ties
[4]See, Kazi Asszad Hossan, “ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus: A Solution to Crisis in Myanmar?, 3 May 2021, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/05/03/aseans-five-point-consensus-a-solution-to-crisis-in-myanmar/
[5]Jubeda Chowdhury, “How Cambodia as ASEAN Chair can play a key role in Rohingya refugee crisis solution”, 19 January 2022, https://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2022/01/19/how-cambodia-as-asean-chair-can-
[6]David Hutt, “Has the ASEAN Chair Become Too Powerful?”, 14 January 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/has-the-asean-chair-become-too-powerful/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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