Will Domestic Politics Upend Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship?

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Will Domestic Politics Upend Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship?

The deteriorating rights situation in Cambodia will be a major distraction from ASEAN’s agenda.

Will Domestic Politics Upend Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship?
Credit: Depositphotos

2012, the last time Cambodia held the ASEAN chairmanship, was an eventful year. In October that year, King Norodom Sihanouk passed away. Since the nominal president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Chea Sim, was by then in failing health (and died three years later), Sihanouk’s passing left Prime Minister Hun Sen alone as the paramount political figure in Cambodia. At Sihanouk’s funeral, the mood of Cambodians was “of sadness, but there were also feelings of anxiety over the direction of the country,” an academic wrote at the time.

It was also that year that opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was formed, in a merger necessitated after the ruling party won the majority of seats in over 97 percent of communes at the local elections in June of the year. It’s interesting today to remember that Hun Sen described the merger as a “storm in a clay pot,” something he would regret when the CNRP almost won the following year’s general election.

2012 was also the first time that world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, gathered in Phnom Penh, for the East Asia and ASEAN summits that year. (Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cambodia.) But Cambodia’s tenure as ASEAN chair was controversial. At the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July that year, Vietnam and the Philippines insisted on including language critical of China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Cambodia objected and no Chairman’s Statement was made after the meeting. Then, after the ASEAN Summit in November 2012, Cambodia allegedly said that all member states had endorsed a claim not to internationalize the maritime disputes, which the Philippines said it had never agreed to. The widespread belief was that Beijing had leaned on Cambodia, with which it was on its way to becoming China’s “ironclad friend,” to do its bidding within the ASEAN bloc.

There are similar fears now, as Cambodia recently took on the ASEAN chairmanship for 2022. Compared to 2012, Phnom Penh is today even more entrenched in Beijing’s pocket, and some analysts suspect that Cambodia will be happy to take Beijing’s side next year. This month, in talks with ASEAN’s top diplomats, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to take a gentler approach to Code of Conduct talks over the South China Sea, which are likely to dominate the ASEAN agenda next year. Much awaits at the upcoming China-ASEAN summit this month, to be held virtually between Xi Jinping and ASEAN leaders. Will relations be upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” an idea Wang floated in June?

Aside from the China issue, Brunei has merely passed the buck over the Myanmar crisis onto Cambodia. ASEAN showed some rare mettle by disinviting the junta’s representatives from the last regional summits, giving Cambodia some precedent to follow in 2022, but ASEAN is still far away from having a serious policy of how to deal with Myanmar’s military junta.

Cambodia will want to use its ASEAN position to advance its own reputation on the international stage, which has taken a hammering since the CPP consolidated its de facto one-party state in 2017 and 2018. Brussels has imposed economic sanctions. Washington has followed up with targeted sanctions and other threats, including some imposed this month.

Hun Sen will also use his position as ASEAN chair to boost his own ego. Despite being one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, he still lacks the gravitas and intellectual esteem that the late Lee Kuan Yew or Mahathir Mohamad, both models for Hun Sen in different ways, are held in. Hun Sen has now ruled Cambodia for longer than Lee governed Singapore, yet he has never acquired a statesman persona, presumably because he isn’t a particularly eloquent articulator of regional issues. However, it’s very likely that he won’t be prime minister when Cambodia gets the position of ASEAN chair again in 2032.

One could argue that ASEAN’s cachet has risen steadily in recent years in part because of the uncontroversial nature of the countries that took on the chair. Vietnam, despite its one-party communist rule, is a friend to the world. Even Brunei, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, largely flies under the radar when it comes to international concerns over human rights. Not so for Cambodia. Now something of a pariah to democracies, its reputation as Beijing’s lackey in Southeast Asia has made Cambodia a target of Washington’s hawks. Just this month, the United States sanctioned two senior Cambodian naval officials, announced a review of Cambodia’s place in its preferential trade scheme, and issued a scathing advisory to U.S. firms about the risks associated with doing business in Cambodia’s political climate.

The question, then, is whether Cambodia’s domestic politics will interfere with how it runs ASEAN next year, and whether ASEAN’s agenda will suffer as the result of being inculcated in Phnom Penh’s international problems.

One potential combustive issue will be Cambodia’s local elections in June next year. Back in 2012, the local elections didn’t really disrupt Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN. Hun Sen’s CPP won them easily and, while there were reports of irregularities and some violence, it wasn’t too out of the ordinary. This time around, however, we can expect far more push back from the international community. It’s far from likely that Hun Sen will allow the now-banned CNRP to return as a legal entity before the ballot, so the likes of the U.S., EU, and other democracies will issue strong statements against the opposition party’s continued exclusion from the poll. Kem Sokha, the CNRP president who was arrested on treason charges in 2017, is still awaiting his day in court. Hun Sen is believed to want to cajole him into either quitting politics or running a de-fanged CNRP in return for clemency. Kem Sokha hasn’t bitten. If he remains under house arrest during the June local elections, this will be another stick with which the international community can criticize the state of Cambodian politics. Moreover, it is widely forecast that the CPP will dominate the local elections, perhaps winning upwards of 90 percent of available seats again (like in 2012). If that’s the case, expect more strong statements from Washington and Brussels.

We can also expect the controversy surrounding the Ream Naval Base to continue into 2022. Since 2019, U.S. officials have alleged that Hun Sen’s government intends to allow the Chinese military to use the base, which would violate Cambodia’s constitution. Phnom Penh has vehemently denied the allegations, but Washington hasn’t let up. Just this month, two senior Cambodian naval officials were sanctioned by the United States over alleged corruption surrounding redevelopment contracts of the Ream base, which have now been awarded to Chinese firms. The Cambodian government won’t want this issue to interfere with its ASEAN chairmanship. But it does matter to the rest of the ASEAN bloc, and there’s no knowing whether U.S. partners like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore might raise the issue.

With a stroke of bad timing, 2022 marks the 45th anniversary of ASEAN’s dialogue partnerships with Canada, the European Union, and the U.S., as well as the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations. This means that Phnom Penh will play host to delegates from these democracies, all of whom (except India) have been scathing about Hun Sen’s authoritarian push since 2017. Regarding the EU, we will see how Brussels wants to play things at the Asia-Europe summit later this month. The EU’s officials are certain to talk about Cambodia’s domestic politics at the regional event.

A bigger issue will be whether democratic leaders turn up to the two summits that will be held in Phnom Penh later in 2022. (There appears little chance that they will be done virtually.) Let’s not forget that U.S. attendance was a controversial subject even in 2012, when Cambodia-U.S. relations were relatively good compared to today. It wasn’t clear whether Obama would attend the summits in Phnom Penh in November 2012, because of the Hun Sen government’s human rights abuses and its authoritarian ways. At the time, opposition leader Sam Rainsy called on Obama to boycott the meetings. As the New York Times put it in a headline that year, Obama’s task in the Cambodian capital was “Avoiding Photo Ops With Cambodia’s Strongman.” In the end, Obama only held a small side-bar chat with Hun Sen and left Cambodia as quickly as possible.

It’s not difficult to imagine that come November 2022, there will be an even bigger and louder chorus of people demanding that the Biden administration boycott the summits in Phnom Penh. The calls will dominate the international headlines, turning attention away from ASEAN and onto Cambodia’s domestic politics. No doubt this will frustrate the likes of Indonesia and Singapore, who expect some decorum at these events, where they can get on with business. Hun Sen won’t like that one bit, although knowing that this is coming he may try to soften up Washington with prisoner releases or limited reforms. If U.S. officials were to boycott the East Asia or ASEAN summit, it would be a major embarrassment for Cambodia and ASEAN itself. Worse, perhaps, if U.S. officials do attend, it could spark more tensions between the American and Chinese delegates gathered in Phnom Penh.