Since the end of the Cold War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has become an increasingly indispensable element in the Asian security architecture. Despite both its subtle and obvious limitations, ASEAN is widely seen as one of the few durable and functioning platforms for institutionalized dialogue and cooperation in a tempestuous geopolitical landscape.
Crucially, the regional body has enjoyed a distinct ‘convening power,’ namely the ability to regularly gather major powers to discuss the most pressing challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), for instance, is one of the few remaining platforms, where leaders of both major and smaller powers can regularly meet their North Korean counterparts in order to mitigate tensions in the Korean Peninsula.
A collection of highly dynamic and strategically-located nations, ASEAN has also been at the receiving end of diplomatic charm offensive by major powers, namely China and the U.S., as well as Japan, Russia, India and the European Union. For this reason, it matters who becomes the chairman of ASEAN, which is annually selected on a rotational basis among the ten Southeast Asian member states.
This year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will be chairing ASEAN on behalf of his country. By and large, the Southeast Asian strongman is expected to address key regional issues such as the South China Sea disputes as well as the crisis in Myanmar in ways that are more in line with China’s views and interests than any other major power. After all, the Cambodian leader views China, a major backer and source of investments, as his most important strategic partner, especially amid his growing estrangement from the West in recent years.
Follow the Chairman
In principle, ASEAN operates on the two pillars of musyawarah (consultation) and muafakat (consensus). In fact, the regional body is famous for its obsessive emphasis on consensus-based decision-making, especially when deeply sensitive and high-stakes issues are at hand.
The upside of this seemingly inclusive approach is that ten deeply diverse nations – Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines – have managed to press ahead with regional integration on multiple fronts while avoiding major disagreements.
What’s often missed in discussions of ASEAN institutional decision-making is the power of the chairman. First of all, the rotational chairman, personified by the head of state of the host nation, has the power to determine ASEAN’s agenda for a whole year. This means that an ASEAN chairman can effectively shape, if not dictate, the direction of regional discussions for a relatively long period of time.
Moreover, an ASEAN chairman has the prerogative to unilaterally issue his own statement when the ten member states fail to agree on a joint statement over a specific divisive issue. Thus, the chairman prerogatives provide a broad and consequential latitude with significant geopolitical consequences.
To put this into context, the last time Cambodia was ASEAN chairman in 2012, Hun Sen went so far as to block the discussion of the South China Sea disputes, even though this enraged founding members such as the Philippines, which was then embroiled in a months-long standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal.
The upshot was an unprecedented breakdown in intra-ASEAN dialogue, with the regional body failing to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history. In fact, discussions got so heated during the ASEAN summit that then Philippine President Benigno Aquino felt compelled to make a direct intervention to censure perceived misconduct by the then ASEAN chairman.
The visibly frustrated Filipino president warned, “The ASEAN route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interest.” In order to avoid a total breakdown, Indonesia, the region’s de facto leader, engaged in a shuttle diplomacy, which culminated in the ‘six-point principles that emphasized ASEAN unity and the indispensability of institutionalized dialogue over sensitive geopolitical issues, including the South China Sea disputes.
By all indications, Hun Sen will not block the South China Sea issue in ASEAN’s annual agenda this year. Rather, he will likely downplay and deprioritize the matter. Throughout the past decade, the Cambodian leader has repeatedly complained about the divisiveness of the issue and, accordingly, the need for a bilateral approach among claimant states rather than an ASEAN-driven response to the disputes.
In many ways, this is more in line with the position of Beijing, which has repeatedly opposed the internationalization of the maritime disputes, albeit its pro forma support for the seemingly endless negotiations over a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
Given Cambodia’s profound dependence on China’s investments and strategic support, and the Southeast Asian country’s lack of any direct stake in the maritime disputes, Hun Sen’s aversion to addressing the sensitive geopolitical issue is unsurprising. Sino-Cambodian relations are as deep as ever.
Aside from opening up major coastal regions to Chinese investors, Cambodian leadership has even been accused of hosting Chinese naval facilities, the first by any Southeast Asian country. In stark contrast, Cambodia has now virtually zero defense cooperation with the U.S., which has stepped up its criticism of Hun Sen’s human rights record and strategic intimacy with China in recent years.
Moreover, the Cambodian leader is also pushing for a more Beijing-aligned position on Myanmar. In early-January, Hun Sen became the first regional leader to officially visit the post-coup regime in Myanmar, where he met top junta leaders.
This stood in direct contrast to the position of the majority of Southeast Asian countries, especially founding members such as Indonesia and the Philippines, who continue to prefer a firm position until major reforms are undertaken by the Burmese regime. Last year, ASEAN made the unprecedented decision to disinvite Myanmar’s leadership from regional summits amid disagreements over the implementation of the “Five-Point Consensus,” which called on the junta to restore democratic governance, release opposition leaders, and end the violent crackdown across the country.
But China, a major investor in Myanmar, has lobbied for greater engagement with the junta rather than its isolation – a position that has now been embraced by the new ASEAN chairman. Under his own version of ‘cowboy diplomacy,’ Hun Sen has openly called for direct engagement with the top generals in Myanmar in order to bring about stability in the country. Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn has even warned of potential “civil war” in absence of institutionalized dialogue, thus the need for ASEAN-level assistance and engagement.
Overall, a Cambodia-led ASEAN is pushing for a regional agenda and crisis-management approach that seems far more in line with the views and interests of China than that of the U.S., which, similar to a number of Southeast Asian countries, has preferred a tougher regional stance on the South China Sea disputes as well as on the military regime in Myanmar.