As the chair of ASEAN in 2022, Cambodia will have a lot to prove, be it on issues such as Myanmar, the South China Sea, and the grouping’s external relations.
After an eventful year, Brunei has passed the baton of ASEAN to Cambodia. The grouping’s future (at least for the next year) is now in Cambodia’s hands. The world will be watching how Phnom Penh will steer ASEAN through the fitting theme of ‘ASEAN ACT — Addressing Challenges Together’ in 2022.
The term ‘together’ is most apposite. Cambodia knows very well that it will not be another year of business-as-usual, and it has a lot to prove. After all, the memories of its 2012 Chairmanship, its close ties with China, the ongoing negotiations of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and of course the single most defining issue of ASEAN — Myanmar — will continue to unfold under its Chairmanship. In 2012, ASEAN had failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its 45-year history, due to differences over how to deal with China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, it seems that Cambodia has prepared itself to be at the forefront with its theme to overcome challenges facing the region through an ‘action-oriented approach’ and in the spirit of ‘togetherness’. One of its deliverables is for ASEAN to be resilient and strong against the pressure and influence stemming from increasing geopolitical competition.
It is not certain how Cambodia will seek to prove that it has achieved the said deliverables. After all, ASEAN did not do too well in this aspect this year when it failed to issue three key statements on the developments in Israel and Palestine, the terrorist attack in Afghanistan outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport on 26 August 2021, and AUKUS (a nuclear technology deal between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States) due to a lack of unity or ‘togetherness’ on these issues.
Cambodia also needs to implement the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Upholding Multilateralism, which was adopted under Brunei’s Chairmanship to enable the grouping to address emerging challenges and to shape a rules-based regional architecture. Just exactly how one declaration can be a solution to all its regional security problems beggars belief. How ASEAN can overcome this and strengthen its collective will to project a stronger voice will be a key test for Cambodia next year.
Another core test for Cambodia will be Myanmar. It goes without saying that Myanmar’s political stability is integral to the bloc. Admittedly, little progress has been made on the implementation of ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus during Brunei’s Chairmanship. Myanmar did not grant access for the Special Envoy Dato Erywan Yusof to meet with all parties concerned. Neither did the violence end.
The considered view of the minister shows that Cambodia knows full well that dealing with Myanmar will be one of the defining verdicts of their Chairmanship. Cambodia cannot afford to be on the wrong side of ASEAN and the world, and yet, it cannot be poised opposite to Myanmar either.
Would Cambodia have greater leverage over Myanmar than Brunei? Despite Malaysia’s call for Cambodia to reappoint the current special envoy to Myanmar, Cambodia thinks it knows better how to bring a lost family member back to the table. Cambodia Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn hoped that the lessons learned from Cambodia’s experience could be helpful for the resolution of the Myanmar crisis, in particular its experience with conflict resolution.
Despite Cambodia’s usually low-key participation during ASEAN meetings, speaking only when necessary, Minister Sokhonn made a longer than usual intervention (perhaps the longest) at the Emergency ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting on 15 October 2021 as he carefully examined the issue. He was determined to find a balanced approach between respecting the sovereignty and dignity of member states and ensuring the credibility, relevance, and centrality of ASEAN on the world’s stage. The considered view of the minister shows that Cambodia knows full well that dealing with Myanmar will be one of the defining verdicts of their Chairmanship. Cambodia cannot afford to be on the wrong side of ASEAN and the world, and yet, it cannot be poised opposite to Myanmar either. Cambodia needs to work with Myanmar to deal with the latter’s political crisis; also, it needs Myanmar to help steer the COC process as the country coordinator of ASEAN-China relations.
The COC is deemed critical by Cambodia to its perceived Chairmanship success. 2022 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Cambodia will be under pressure to coincide the conclusion of the COC on an auspicious occasion. Myanmar too will be eager to show results as an effective member of ASEAN in coordinating with an important dialogue partner, after being cast in a bad light. Whether the COC can be consistent with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), remains in question especially when there are differences in views between the eleven parties on the 1982 UNCLOS and the ‘universally recognised principles’ of international law including the rights to conduct activities with foreign entities.
ASEAN’s external relations will present new opportunities and challenges for Cambodia. As with every Chairmanship, managing a proliferation of requests from ambitious external partners, from requests for more summits to the establishment of new partnerships, such as the recent establishment of Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with China and Australia, is never a breeze.
2022 will also mark the 45th anniversary of several long-standing dialogue partnerships including with Canada, the European Union and the US, as well as the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations. ASEAN leaders are looking forward to the commemoration of these Summits which will be chaired by Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of ASEAN’s longest-serving leaders who knows the region’s pulse. It will be an opportunity to showcase some positive results of ASEAN’s Covid-19 initiatives and announcements of climate and social initiatives.
The heat is on for Cambodia as it hosts the 41st ASEAN Summits and its series of high-level meetings in Phnom Penh later next year, which will be a refreshing face-to-face meeting after a very long time. As the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, who knows, something good may come about. Will ASEAN be found ready? The jury is out.
Joanne Lin is Lead Researcher in Political-Security affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.