Going into 2022, ASEAN flew into a perfect storm of challenges within and without. With the annual ASEAN summits over, the grouping is none the worse for the wear.
With global leaders jetting off to Bali for the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit and then to Bangkok for the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, Cambodia can now heave a sigh of relief after hosting one of the season’s key summits without much drama. Concerns over the global economic recovery, recessionary threats, food and energy security took centre stage against the gridlock of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, intensifying US-China rivalry and the problem of Myanmar. Yet, ASEAN was able to make some difficult decisions on longstanding issues, albeit with much trudging.
Here are six takeaways from Phnom Penh:
1. Myanmar Crisis: A Deadlock?
Myanmar proved to be one of the most closely watched issues of the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit. The statement released on ASEAN leaders’ decision on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) did not provide any new measures except for an implementation plan with practical and measurable indicators. ASEAN Leaders called for the 5PC to be “implemented in its entirety”. There was no decision to engage the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) as well as other stakeholders. But manoeuvring space was given to the Special Envoy to employ a “flexible and informal approach” which could mean that informal engagement with the NUG is possible.
The onus was placed on the “Myanmar Armed Force” as the “single largest military forces (sic)” to “comply with its commitments”. While many have decried ASEAN’s decisions as being woefully inadequate, the State Administration Council rejected ASEAN’s statement, called out ASEAN for interfering in its affairs and insisted that it would follow its own 5-point plan. ASEAN’s peace process with Myanmar involving the SAC will remain deadlocked for years to come.
2. Ukraine’s Symbolic Accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation
Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba signed the Instrument of Accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast (TAC) — an ASEAN instrument that embodies universal principles of peaceful cooperation, including mutual respect for the sovereignty of all nations. Within ASEAN, responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine vary considerably. Ukraine’s TAC accession, while symbolic, signifies ASEAN’s in-principle support of Kyiv and its respect for territorial integrity.
Ukraine’s accession means that it will become a High Contracting Party together with Russia, which has been a Party to the TAC since 2004. Although the geographical scope of the TAC is limited to Southeast Asia, there are provisions within the treaty that offers the options of mediation, inquiry or conciliation among High Contracting Parties. However, it is unlikely that Russia will utilise this instrument to resolve its conflict with Ukraine, even if Ukraine were to pursue the TAC as an option to resolve the conflict.
3. ASEAN Provisionally Admits New Member to the Family
ASEAN announced that it had agreed “in principle” to admit Timor-Leste as the bloc’s 11th member after more than ten years of consideration. While a “criteria-based roadmap” will be needed for its eventual full membership, Timor-Leste will be allowed to participate in all ASEAN meetings as an observer, albeit without decision-making rights.
Only time will tell if Timor-Leste will serve as a net positive contributor to ASEAN or become another liability. Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta took a swipe at ASEAN by saying that getting into the grouping is harder than getting into “heaven”. This might be true; Timor-Leste will have to work for its salvation.
4. Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships for the U.S. and India
The U.S. and India have been granted a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of ASEAN, making them the third and fourth dialogue partners accorded this status after China and Australia. A Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signifies a high level of maturity in the relationship as reflected in the breadth and depth of cooperation and political commitment. It is expected that the U.S.’ and India’s new status will help to facilitate their strategic alignment towards ASEAN, including the two major powers’ support for ASEAN’s implementation of its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) through new or enhanced areas of cooperation.
Washington and New Delhi’s overall engagement in the region have improved since the pandemic halted physical meetings of ASEAN summits. For U.S. President Joseph Biden, this Summit marked his second meeting following the Special Summit last May. Recently, Washington also appointed a new U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN.
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not in Phnom Penh, there are expectations that New Delhi would demonstrate strategic leadership in the Indo-Pacific, particularly to balance China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea, and in economic cooperation — especially after its withdrawal from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2020. It is now time for India to match its rhetoric with actions.
Cambodia showed its mettle by being adept in managing great power rivalry… Critics who had expected to see a repeat of the 2012 Chairmanship fiasco were sorely disappointed.
5. Cambodia Shows Its Mettle
Cambodia inherited a Chairmanship when ASEAN was beset with more problems than the previous year. With the Myanmar political and humanitarian crisis already rocking ASEAN’s boat, the grouping had to deal with a slew of challenges without: the Russo-Ukraine war and the resultant issues of food and energy security as global supply chains were disrupted, Cross-Strait tensions triggered by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August and moves by the U.S. and its allies to decouple from the Chinese economy.
Here, Cambodia showed its mettle by being adept in managing great power rivalry. It engaged in and co-chaired two summits with the U.S. despite poor bilateral relations and took the initiative to coax Myanmar back to the ASEAN family table. The unusually timely release of statements, including the ASEAN Leaders’ decision on Myanmar, reflects Cambodia’s competence in managing tough negotiations. Critics who had expected to see a repeat of the 2012 Chairmanship fiasco were sorely disappointed.
6. Can We Expect Indonesia to Step Up?
Cambodia is passing the torch to Indonesia whose Chairmanship theme is a single tagline “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. Jakarta’s previous leadership of ASEAN was transformational. In 2003, Jakarta pulled together Bali Concord III, transforming ASEAN into a structured regional organisation with three pillars of political-security, economic, and socio-cultural cooperation. In 2011, it conducted “shuttle diplomacy” to mediate the dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear Temple dispute.
Indeed, the expectations of Indonesia’s leadership — ASEAN’s biggest country — are exceptionally high at this critical juncture. In an interview, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi acknowledged intensified major power rivalry and ASEAN citizens’ demand for more tangible impacts. She added that ASEAN needs to initiate significant reforms to stay relevant.
President Joko Widodo’s visit to Russia and Ukraine to broker peace and his administration’s G20 leadership have signalled a healthy appetite to take ASEAN to the next level. However, Indonesia has a full domestic agenda, and it remains a question if Indonesia will step up to the plate where many before have failed. The ASEAN Chairmanship will probably be Jokowi’s last attempt to showcase good governance and foreign policy leadership before the country heads into general elections in 2024. All eyes will be on Jakarta come 2023.
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.