By Kimkong Heng*
Cambodia will be ASEAN chair next year — its third time since joining the regional group in 1999. The last time Cambodia chaired ASEAN was in 2012, when it was fiercely criticised for siding with China at the expense of other ASEAN states over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history after Cambodia reportedly refused to include language criticising China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Yet Cambodia will be confronted by an even more difficult set of challenges as ASEAN chair in 2022. First is the need to conclude the highly anticipated Code of Conduct needed to address conflicting territorial claims in the region’s disputed waters. This issue could cause divisions between ASEAN members and potentially undermine the bloc’s centrality, unity and relevance to Asia Pacific governance more broadly.
While Cambodia has reiterated its neutral stance as a non-claimant state and encouraged bilateral approaches to address South China Sea disputes, claimant ASEAN members such as the Philippines and Vietnam want issues to be resolved multilaterally through ASEAN.
Disagreements over how best to resolve the issue could re-surface when Cambodia becomes ASEAN chair next year,even if leaders like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte already seem unwilling to confront China over maritime disputes today. In the worst-case scenario, the world may witness another failure of ASEAN diplomacy if Cambodia cannot reconcile the diverse interests of the organisation’s ten member states. The claims that Cambodia is becoming a Chinese client state will also be reinforced, further damaging Cambodia’s international image.
Another challenge is resolving the Myanmar crisis triggered by the military junta’s coup in February. It appears unlikely that Brunei’s chairmanship this year will bring Myanmar back to pre-coup normalcy. Myanmar’s military led by General Min Aung Hlaing has demonstrated its willingness — including through acts of violence against civilian protestors — to hold onto power. It also remains to be seen whether ASEAN can successfully implement its five-point consensus reached during its special summit in Jakarta in late April.
If the Myanmar crisis remains unresolved, Cambodia may well be burdened with the task of trying to stop ongoing violence against civilians by the Myanmar military. It will be a difficult test of leadership for Cambodia given its own poor human rights record and attitudes towards the coup, which depart from other ASEAN members such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Beyond maritime disputes and the Myanmar crisis, half of ASEAN and China are caught up in environmental issues plaguing the Mekong Delta region. The grave environmental damage caused by the ongoing damming of the upper Mekong River system might have far-reaching consequences for millions of people in Southeast Asia.
As China continues to exert its influence in the Mekong, other players have stepped up their regional footprint. The United States has renewed its engagement through the Mekong–US Partnership while regional powers such as Japan and South Korea deepen their engagement with Mekong countries on top of broader cooperation with ASEAN.
Growing geopolitical competition between the United States and China is seen as a double-edged sword by ASEAN member states. While increased competition and engagement in the region has brought new opportunities, it also has served as a catalyst for side taking and division, jeopardising historical ASEAN centrality and unity.
Cambodia could be caught up in the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. Washington has already expressed concerns regarding an alleged Chinese military base in Cambodia, despite a lack of concrete evidence to prove its existence. In her recent visit to Cambodia, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised the issue of China’s military presence, urging Cambodia’s leadership ‘to maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy’.
As ASEAN chair, Cambodia will also be tasked with leading Southeast Asia’s post-pandemic economic recovery. Although COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc, the dissemination of Chinese vaccines such as Sinovac and Sinopharm has been greenlighted for emergency use by the World Health Organization, an event likely to usher in more ambitious vaccination programs across the region — particularly in countries with close ties to China.
Yet Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship is likely to come under pressure due to those very same ties. Phnom Penh’s increasing reliance on Chinese development aid means Cambodia is likely to behave as it did during disputes over the South China Sea. ASEAN alone cannot guarantee Cambodia’s security and economic development, so Cambodia prefers not to unnecessarily provoke China.
A recent statement from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen puts this succinctly — ‘If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?’ China looks likely to remain Cambodia’s first choice to guarantee its economic interests and regime survival for the foreseeable future.
But given the deep animosity between China and the United States, as well as some ASEAN member states, Cambodia would be wise to adopt a more flexible and balanced foreign policy that does not simply serve China’s strategic interests and reverses its own authoritarian turn.
*About the author: Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Cambodia Development Center.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum