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Foreign Policy

Rebound or Relapse: Will China Foreshadow Cambodia’s 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship?

Feb 20, 2022

A more confident Cambodia is taking on the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a potentially critical transition year. But a botched leadership in the past and concerns over the influence of its top patron, China, cast a long shadow on its role. Phnom Penh realizes that while relative success at home frees up more energy to engage in regional diplomacy, getting the buy-in of its neighbors and shepherding consensus requires more skill. With such grave challenges, that include stimulating recovery from the pandemic, addressing the crisis in Myanmar, managing disputes in the South China Sea, and navigating growing U.S.-China tensions, ASEAN will have its hands full. 

Cambodia’s health and economic performance imbue it with a sense of confidence as it assumes the once-in-a-decade revolving ASEAN post. The country is a bright spot in Southeast Asia. It has some of the lowest numbers of Covid-19 cases and the highest vaccination rates in the region, factors that may bode well on its road to recovery. Its economy has also been growing by around 7 percent annually over the last decade. In fact, in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, World Bank figures show that the country posted the highest growth rate in the region at 7.054 percent, ahead of neighboring Vietnam’s 7.017.  

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s surprise trip to Naypyidaw last month shows that Cambodia’s stint will be far from low-key and uneventful. On the contrary, the visit, the first by a head of state to Myanmar since last year’s military coup, reveals that Phnom Penh will not shy away from taking bold steps to break ground. A personal impulse may also be a driver behind Cambodia’s diplomatic push. After providing political stability and putting his country on a track towards development, despite criticisms of democratic regression, Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, may also want to leave a legacy of being a regional peace broker. Playing a constructive role in addressing the deepening Myanmar tragedy will surely memorialize him and his country’s contribution. However, with absent close consultation and coordination with other ASEAN members, especially those which have more influence on or have a direct stake on the issue at hand, its initiatives may not get the regional support they deserve. 

As a country that came out from years of civil war, genocide, and foreign intervention, Cambodia does not lack the experience and lessons it can share with a neighbor facing parallel circumstances. While the eyebrow-raising visit conjured images of legitimizing the junta takeover, the country is not the only one supportive of continued engagement with the State Administration Council (SAC) in Myanmar. This is despite the international opprobrium the regime earned for upending the results of the elections and reversing the country’s tenuous transition to civilian rule. While insular Southeast Asian peers like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have been quite vocal about their position, Myanmar’s non-democratic mainland neighbors, for understandable reasons, have been more discreet. 

One surely cannot overstate the impact of external players in shaping Myanmar’s domestic affairs. But sending mixed signals that an increasingly isolated regime in Naypyidaw may misconstrue is the least ASEAN would want to do at this point. SAC misreading Hun Sen’s visit as an implicit expression of solidarity to its cause only bred resentment from other domestic actors in Myanmar and concern among other ASEAN members and the international community. To this end, a recent Chairman statement on Myanmar that reaffirms the need to implement the Five Point Consensus, including holding a dialogue with all relevant domestic parties and the dispatch of a special ASEAN envoy to help facilitate mediation, brings relief. 

In 2012, under Cambodia’s watch, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique after their annual meeting, a first in 45 years. The fiasco was attributed to Phnom Penh’s opposition to certain references on the South China Sea, arguing that they are bilateral issues and need not be reflected in the customary post-meeting joint statement. Whether China put pressure on Cambodia or the latter did so on its own to avoid offending its top backer, the debacle undermined the country’s chairmanship of the regional bloc. Fast forward to 2022, the South China Sea remains a hot-button issue, and China’s role in Cambodia has become more entrenched. Hence, all eyes will be on how Phnom Penh will disprove critics predicting a repeat of the 2012 ignominy. 

China is Cambodia’s top trading partner, investor and donor. In many respects, the country is evolving to showcase what is in store for a country that stays in Beijing’s good graces. From offering political and diplomatic support to fend off international criticisms, bankrolling its infrastructure projects to backstopping its Covid-19 vaccination program, the country’s big northern neighbor long served as an untiring benefactor. But such overexposure to China is at the root of its neighbors’ unease over its exercise of a crucial regional function. The postponement of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat initially scheduled last month was seen as a subtle rebuke of Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar, wherein he failed to meet other parties other than SAC officials. A bloc chair perceived as partial to one great power may also compel rivals to double down on expanding minilaterals, like Quad or AUKUS, which may undermine ASEAN’s cohesion and centrality. Thus, striking a balance between avoiding upsetting China and keeping its standing within ASEAN will be tough. As frustration with Myanmar grows and tensions among claimants and rivals in the South China Sea fester, Phnom Penh will be treading a fine line.

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