At its Foreign Ministers Meeting in July 2012, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history. The failure was blamed on the actions of the bloc’s chair, Cambodia, which moved to block mild criticisms of China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Phnom Penh’s intervention subsequently tarnished the Kingdom’s international image, prompting some to call for Cambodia’s expulsion from the Southeast Asian bloc.
Ten years later, as Cambodia gears up to assume a challenging chairmanship next year, memories of the 2012 mishap remain vivid. ASEAN’s agenda for 2022 is likely to include a range of important issues, including post-COVID-19 economy recovery and climate change. Other less major items could include Timor-Leste’s ASEAN member application and the United Kingdom’s request to become a full dialogue partner of ASEAN.
But for now, most attention will be on how Cambodia leads ASEAN in resolving the political crisis in Myanmar, and deals with negotiations with China on a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
The current ASEAN chair, Brunei, has been roundly criticized for legitimizing Myanmar’s military junta by allowing Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of the military government, to the bloc’s special Leaders Meeting in Jakarta on April 24, and undertaking an additional visit last week.
Meanwhile, ASEAN members have shown contrasting positions regarding the Myanmar crisis. While Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have decried the use of force against unarmed civilians, others sit on the fence or stay silent. The need to resolve the issue would become more urgent but also more complex if a nationwide civil war were to break out in the country, which is plausible as tensions between ethnic armies and the Tatmadaw has escalated.
With no end to the country’s troubles in sight, Cambodia will face the similarly complex question of how to bridge the differing views of ASEAN’s members on the crisis, and how to implement the “Five-Point Consensus” agreed at the Jakarta meeting.
Given its actions in 2012, the long-awaited negotiations on a COC for the South China Sea could also be a hot potato for Cambodia as it assumes the ASEAN chairmanship. In 2019, China and ASEAN agreed to finalize the COC, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang setting a 2021 deadline which is likely to be missed, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Erywan Pehin Yusof, Brunei’s second minister of foreign affairs, has announced that the COC discussions cannot proceed without a physical meeting. Moreover, despite holding several rounds of talks, China and Southeast Asian claimants remain far apart on key issues, particularly Vietnam’s call for the COC to include reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a demand that China doesn’t fancy.
Given the warm state of Cambodia-China ties, however, Beijing might push for final negotiations on the COC to be completed while Phnom Penh occupies the chair, rather than waiting until 2023, when Indonesia takes over the role.
Indeed, China’s activities in the South China Sea have considerably expanded since Cambodia last chaired ASEAN, prompting some ASEAN claimants to seek external support to deter China’s aggression. This has further complicated the issue, which has now evolved beyond disputes among claimants and become the subject of superpower competition. Furthermore, any serious incidents in the South China Sea during Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship would be likely to freeze COC discussions.
Another issue that is likely to come onto Cambodia’s agenda during its chairmanship is the U.K.’s request to become an ASEAN dialogue partner. Given the U.K.’s economic and political importance for ASEAN, the decision should pose few challenges. However, ASEAN’s last full dialogue endorsement took place more than two decades ago. Kavi Chongkittavorn warned that lifting a moratorium could “open Pandora’s Box with unknown consequences.” Specifically, for Cambodia, approving the U.K. as a dialogue partner during its chairmanship might darken its ties with Pakistan, which has been seeking a similar endorsement as dialogue partner since 1992.
If the above issues all pose formidable challenges for Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship, they also appear to present the country’s government with an opportunity. Major advancements –either a conclusion of the COC or materialization of any part of ASEAN’s five-point consensus on Myanmar – could be a milestone for ASEAN and help repair Cambodia’s foreign image after the events of 2012.
There are no blueprints telling how Cambodia should chair ASEAN. But the following suggestions might help the country establish a foundation to build on. First, Cambodia should reformulate and stick to a foreign policy that mixes firmness and flexibility. The country needs to be firmer in defending its independence but more flexible in seeking a modus vivendi with ASEAN members and superpowers.
Second, approaching difficult and controversial issues, Cambodia might want to keep a low profile and go with the group. For example, regarding the COC, meetings with ASEAN non-claimants of the South China Sea to discuss and explore common points of interest would be useful preparation for Cambodia’s resumption of the chair. In 2016, for example, Cambodia was again singled out for blocking mention of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration from an ASEAN statement, even though multiple countries were against including the ruling in the statement.
Third, Cambodia might also look at other recent ASEAN chairs’ experience, most recently, for instance, how Brunei issued a statement on ASEAN’s behalf to highlight the Myanmar crisis, yet without jeopardizing the bloc’s non-interference principle. That includes how Brunei addressed the criticisms that have been leveled against it for engaging directly with Myanmar’s military junta.
Fourth, Cambodia might cautiously explore possibilities of working more proactively with the superpowers. During her visit to Cambodia last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Prime Minister Hun Sen that the United States intends “to work with Cambodia in its role as 2022 ASEAN Chair and help ensure it can play a constructive role in addressing critical regional political and security challenges.”
That could be the opportunity for Cambodia to explore what kind of support the U.S. could offer. Whether or not this helps Cambodia resolve any ASEAN issue, the prospect of working with the U.S. could help jump start Cambodia-U.S. cooperation, which would aid Cambodia’s plan to diversify its foreign policy.
The same goes for China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has described the ties between Phnom Penh and Beijing as “unbreakable.” Perhaps it’s time to validate that, and perhaps, too, a time for China to return Cambodia a favor after the 2012 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. We know how much influence China has in Myanmar.
Finally, if Cambodia were to face a similar scenario to 2012, it should at least try hard to mitigate the consequences. One option is to work with the media to ensure that Cambodia’s position is adequately represented.
Overcoming the above issues sounds ambitious for Cambodia. It has limited soft and hard power and therefore has to rely on diplomatic methods, which might be inadequate to the serious challenges at hand. However, by not trying, Cambodia would miss an opportunity to make the best use of its ASEAN chair opportunity, and to make up for its actions a decade ago.