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Critical Fault Lines Emerging in Southeast Asia with Cambodia’s ASEAN Chair Year

By Gillian Murphy

January 7, 2022  – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen waved to the crowd lining the red carpet in Naypyidaw as he was ushered into the Myanmar military junta’s headquarters. Although greeted by an official entourage, a guard of honor, and bouquets of flowers in his meeting with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, furious Burmese protestors across Myanmar commemorated Hun Sen’s visit by burning photos of the prime minister. They feared that the visit would legitimize the military regime, which has provoked intense conflict and chaos since its February 2021 coup d’etat. 

Cambodian relations with Myanmar’s brutal military dictatorship have drawn attention within the region and the international community considering Cambodia’s role as the 2022 Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The rotating year-long chairmanship bestows upon member states the duty of hosting summits and coordinating the bloc’s efforts and strategies. 

Regional tensions have heightened the importance of the role, particularly as Hun Sen has taken the initiative to make major decisions autonomously. For example, he visited Myanmar as the first foreign leader to do so since the military-led State Administrative Council overthrew the government.

Beyond the borders of Southeast Asia, Cambodia simultaneously finds itself entangled in the U.S.-China power struggle. ASEAN has long served as a buffer between China and the United States and acts as an essential arena for diplomatic relations for both nations. As one U.S. State Department official stated in June 2021, “if China can influence ASEAN, the whole region is under its control.” 

ASEAN’s policy of noninterference and its inability to reach consensus on central issues, such as the conflict in the South China Sea, the Myanmar military coup, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, makes it unable to take meaningful action. Consequently, the organization’s relevance within the region and on the world stage has diminished, exemplified by Hun Sen reneging on ASEAN plans to ameliorate the situation in Myanmar only three months into Cambodia’s chairmanship.

In a particularly turbulent time for Southeast Asian relations, Cambodia has taken the helm of the region’s preeminent grouping. Cambodia’s relationship with Myanmar has raised further questions about ASEAN’s inability to confront thorny matters between member states and external partners. 

Additionally, the intensity of the strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China has only increased over the past few years, pushing ASEAN nations to pick sides. The bloc’s legitimacy will continue to be tested throughout 2022 as Cambodia attempts to navigate leadership amidst crises and persisting regional struggles of rising authoritarianism, border conflicts, environmental degradation, and – most trying – differing interests.

The Origins of ASEAN

Formed in 1967, ASEAN is the self-proclaimed “most successful inter-governmental organization in the developing world,” having overcome international pessimism over its capabilities to provide a stable platform of diplomacy, security cooperation, and vast economic growth in its ten member states: Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. ASEAN proved essential in maintaining regional stability during the Cold War and has since followed a strategy of neutrality in its relations with global powers. 

Cambodia was the last nation to join ASEAN in 1999. When the organization was founded, Cambodia was entering a period of civil war and genocide that marked the end of the twentieth century for the country. From the 1990s onwards, the state engaged in a remarkable strengthening of civil society and open press, followed by great economic development. Since then, there has been considerable backsliding in democracy and human rights, and Cambodia remains riddled with corruption, environmental and climate challenges, and a weak rule of law

Within this context, Cambodia ended its second chairmanship year in 2012 amid controversy. Due to South China Sea disputes – with territorial claims from nearly half of ASEAN’s members – and heavy Chinese pressure, Cambodia did not issue a joint ASEAN statement for the first time in the organization’s history.

Cambodia’s third chairmanship year promises to hold even greater challenges. This was epitomized by Hun Sen’s declaration on December 2, 2021 as he ramped up preparations for the chair year; the longest-serving prime minister in the world announced that the country’s political leadership would remain in his family for the foreseeable future, demonstrating an open engagement in illiberal practices and setting the tone for his ASEAN leadership.

Though ASEAN is meant to be a platform for dialogue and unity, it operates on a principle of consensus that can be difficult to achieve among its disparate members. As of 2022, not one ASEAN nation is ranked as “free” in the Freedom House’s preeminent assessment of political rights. Considering every ASEAN nation is facing difficulty maintaining democracy and basic freedoms, and outside influences such as China and the U.S. are vying for the role of puppet master of these intra- and international tensions, the organization appears to be losing both its sovereignty and purpose.

ASEAN’s Approach to Myanmar’s Military Junta

ASEAN’s handling of the Myanmar crisis illustrates the organization’s neutrality conundrum. At an April 2021 crisis meeting under Indonesia’s chairmanship, ASEAN established a Five-Point Consensus on how to proceed with the crisis in Myanmar. 

The five points included that all violence be immediately halted, that involved parties engage in constructive dialogue mediated by a special ASEAN Chair envoy, that ASEAN provide humanitarian assistance, and that a delegation visit Myanmar to meet with concerned parties. However, enacting these promises has proved to be a more complicated endeavor. 

Hun Sen entered the chair year with “extreme confidence” in his abilities to negotiate a compromise with Myanmar’s military government and reintegrate them into the bloc. Accordingly, Hun Sen made his January 7 trip to Naypyidaw without consulting fellow member states, a decision criticized by Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who argued that Hun Sen should have “consulted the other ASEAN leaders and [sought] their views.” Hun Sen rebuffed this assertion as an “arrogant” reaction. 

After this internal ASEAN disagreement in February, Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was barred from an annual ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat, where exchanges on key issues take place. This was seen as a surprisingly substantive act by an organization called a “toothless talking shop” by the TV channel France 24

Only a month later, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn departed for Myanmar on March 21 as the new ASEAN special envoy to broker progress on a peace plan. However, his attempts at advancing relations proved fruitless, as he described, “all Myanmar parties are not yet ready for talks.” Hun Sen, in exasperation, put forth an amended belief that solutions would not be found during Cambodia’s 2022 chair year, explaining, “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, so just let it be.” 

Moreover, despite signing onto ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, Myanmar’s junta has not cooperated with efforts to implement it. FM Sokhonn requested to meet with leaders from the ousted National Unity Government (NUG), such as former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained since the coup. He was denied by the Burmese military, which referred to the NUG as a “terrorist” group perpetrating violence. 

ASEAN seems paralyzed on this critical issue, with Thailand and Vietnam’s hesitation contradicted by the more democratic Philippines and Indonesia’s desires for stronger condemnation of Myanmar. ASEAN is critically limited by its policy of noninterference; its aim of maintaining mutual respect has resulted in grave inaction. 

Outside Influences: China & the U.S. Vying for Power

Cambodia has increasingly been navigating challenges on a larger global scale. Perhaps more than any other ASEAN nation, Cambodia has been the stage for U.S.-China tensions as the two superpowers vie for influence in the region within the context of their history of geopolitical struggles, such as those within the South China Sea and Taiwan. 

China is inextricably linked to Cambodian development; in 2021, Cambodia received a ​​fixed-asset investment of $2.32 billion from China. China has thus taken advantage of the relationship engendered through its Belt and Road Initiative, strategically spreading its sphere of influence through its various infrastructure projects over the past nine years. 

China has also overlooked political and human rights violations for which the U.S. has harangued Cambodia. This has made it difficult for the U.S. to both keep its foothold in the region and sanction Cambodian actions. Hun Sen himself stated in a September 2021 speech during a visit from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “if I didn’t rely on China, who would I rely on?” 

Despite the Prime Minister’s dedication to Chinese interests, most Cambodian people are wary of China’s presence and influence, especially regarding the neo-imperial power’s corruption, crime, and cultural insensitivity. The majority of Cambodian youth is increasingly aligned with Western democratic values, looking much more fondly upon the United States and its ideals than their own government. These conflicting loyalties make it complicated for Cambodia to take a strong leadership posture within the intra-ASEAN power struggle.

Russian Invasion of Ukraine Has Further Revealed Inter-Bloc Divergence

China and the U.S. are not the only global superpowers stirring up disagreement within ASEAN: the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated tensions within the bloc. ASEAN released two constrained statements of concern on February 24 and March 3 which failed to cite Russia’s role in the invasion. In early March, Singapore placed sanctions against Russia – an ASEAN dialogue partner – joining the U.S., UK, and EU, while Myanmar heralded Russia’s actions as “justified.”

Hun Sen himself denounced Russia, stating on March 28 at an unrelated event, “I still stand in solidarity with Ukrainian people against the invasion.” On March 2 and again on March 24, Cambodia co-sponsored and voted for UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which analysts viewed as a sign of autonomy from China. Conversely, other closely tied nations, Laos and Vietnam, abstained, and another opportunity for ASEAN unanimity passed by. 

2022 has already brought its fair share of crises for ASEAN to address, and it is unlikely that Cambodia’s challenges as Chair will cease throughout the rest of the year. The Five-Point Consensus will presumably remain on ASEAN’s agenda despite failed attempts at enactment. However, there is no compromise with Myanmar in sight as the junta becomes increasingly resistant

The investment of ASEAN’s eleven external dialogue partners in the organization is ultimately threatened by the Southeast Asian nations’ continued failure to reach consensus. The region’s tendency to fluctuate between authoritarianism and democracy has further made its future unpredictable. 

In spite of the myriad of external forces fighting for influence over Cambodia, Hun Sen seems dedicated to maintaining an air of independence. However, his bias toward China draws into question Cambodia’s capacity to act as a mediator in the geopolitical game. ASEAN needs to reassert itself as an organization capable of taking a stance and becoming an essential bridge between world powers. Still, Cambodia has yet to demonstrate an ability to lead such efforts.

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