Cambodia Set to Take Global Stage Again as ASEAN Chair
By Kavi Chongkittavorn 3 November 2021
For the next 365 days, every move Cambodia, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, makes or takes will be scrutinized by strategists and political pundits around the world. Phnom Penh will be the new fulcrum in the post-pandemic era to which global leaders can converge and discuss their future, which could further intensify cooperation or tension. After nearly four decades of continuous power, Hun Sen’s brinkmanship is well known and most of all, he knows exactly what he wants to say and do. Uniquely, none of the regional leaders knows the region’s pulse and global politics as well as Hun Sen.
At last week’s ASEAN summit, he minced no words saying that the absence of Myanmar was the result of its own doing. “It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar,” he reiterated. His government will set up a special task force to tackle the Myanmar crisis. In addition, given his longstanding experience in dealing with challenges related to peace and conflict, he will use all available tools, both quiet and back door diplomacy, to share lessons and experiences to end the quagmire.
Furthermore, in the preceding month, numerous comments and assessments were made over the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements (PPAs), which brought the Buddhist kingdom to where it is today. Peaceful and constantly developing, the country is a member of the young tiger economies with a GDP per capita exceeding US$1,500, making it a low middle-income nation. Back then, no one would have imagined this once war-torn country would come this far.
Even though three decades have elapsed since the peace accords, the current administration is still grappling with plenty of work in progress, especially issues related to governance, income distribution and the social well-being of its citizens. As envisaged back in 1991, Cambodia should have been an inclusive, fully liberal democracy today given the enormous efforts and financial assistance provided by the United Nations and international community in the nation-building process.
Beyond that, there are plenty of reasons for watching Cambodia’s brinkmanship. First of all, Cambodia is hosting the 13th Asia Europe Meeting (Asem) on Nov. 25-26. The meeting comes at a time when Europe is looking for new partnerships to strengthen strategic assets around the world. Its Indo-Pacific strategy has made clear the importance of Southeast Asia in the scheme of strategic matters for Europe. The region also wants a strong European presence to counterbalance other major powers.
Indeed, cross-Atlantic ties between the US and Europe have been badly bruised by the ripple effects caused by the cancellation of the submarine deal between France and Australia. The latter decided to enter into a new deal with the US and UK and form a new security alliance, known as AUKUS. Reactions from Europe and Southeast Asia were equally strong and this is likely to induce more and broader cooperation between the two regions.
With its huge population of 656 million and future economic potential, Europe will certainly not give Southeast Asia a miss. But first Europe has to engage Hun Sen in a more holistic way, instead of focusing solely on norms and values as well as European demeanors. Both sides will not want to miss the opportunity to cement their common strategic visions at the upcoming Asem.
In addition, Cambodia is the new ASEAN chair. Although its official duties will only begin on Jan. 1, the chair’s informal activities will start right away. Obviously, Cambodia has a lot to chew on as the chair at this critical juncture. Equally, the failure to issue a joint communique in 2012 when the country last held the chair of ASEAN is likely to continue to haunt Cambodia. Phnom Penh has pointed out that it was a matter of principle and not at the behest of China as widely reported and assumed, that the joint communique was not issued due to the disagreement over the nature of the conflicting parties in the South China Sea.
This time, Cambodia and Hun Sen will have ample opportunity to prove all past and current critics wrong. Even though Hun Sen has pursued the so-called Cambodian style of permanent neutrality and non-alignment as King Norodom Sihanouk did during the Cold War, he is considered more adroit and pragmatic in managing ties with great powers especially where national interests and survival are concerned. He is nobody’s bogeyman.
The ASEAN chair will be his third, presumably his last. Hun Sen has said he will retire from politics soon — he wants to ensure that his legacy within his country and the ASEAN family is safely embedded. The ongoing crisis in Myanmar will be fittingly a test case for the new chair. Hun Sen has already established a rapport with the head of the Myanmar military regime, Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, when they met at the first ASEAN summit on April 24 at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta to discuss the aftermath of the Feb. 1 coup. He was the only leader to speak out urging Myanmar to get help from ASEAN. He stressed that Cambodia benefited from the assistance from the ASEAN family.
For one thing, under the Cambodian chair, there will be more communication and consultation among the ASEAN leaders as well as with their dialogue partners to work out timelines and frameworks for future humanitarian and development assistance for Myanmar. Cambodia has been through such efforts before and during the nation-building process right after the PPAs were signed three decades ago. It was not surprising that Hun Sen told Min Aung Hlaing during their first meeting Myanmar in Jakarta in April that he should allow ASEAN to help out with the peace process in his country.
The progress of negotiating the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea will be another barometer of the chair’s effectiveness. Progress on the COC negotiations has been slow due to COVID-19. But the future prospects have improved as China and ASEAN will soon meet face to face to complete the reading of the first single draft text. Phnom Penh hopes to issue a statement to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) on its achievements to provide further impetus for conflicting parties to expedite their negotiations.
Most importantly, Cambodia would like to enlarge the bloc’s membership to include Timor Leste, after years of delay. At the ASEAN summit in Brunei, the leaders took note of the progress the Dili government has made so far. Concerned ASEAN bodies are carefully vetting the country’s preparedness before the decision is made. Having the region’s youngest democracy as its 11th member will strengthen the agendas advocated by the bloc’s small developing members.
By the end of next year, the threat of COVID-19 should have greatly subsided as the populations of all the ASEAN members become vaccinated. As the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen expects to welcome all leaders in person who are scheduled to attend the ASEAN-related summits, especially the members of the East Asia Summit. It will be the first in-situ meeting in two years. (These leaders have to consider the possibility of making back-to-back trips to the region as Thailand is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders’ Meeting at year’s end).
Finally, a Cambodian candidate is also next in line to succeed the current ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi, when his term expires at the end of next year under his watch. All things considered, it is all up to Hun Sen with his actions and words.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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