What to Expect of Cambodia as ASEAN Chair

On October 28, Cambodia officially took over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the third time since joining the group in 1999.

Sitting atop ASEAN brings some passing power and prestige. Brunei, the 2021 chair, hosted several ASEAN meetings and summits, including one with President Joe Biden. The Group of 20 (G20), which comprises the world’s major economies, also invited Brunei to its leaders’ summit, as it does every ASEAN chair.

Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, a strongman who has been in power for almost 37 years and is personally invested in being accorded “respect” abroad, will certainly enjoy his country’s 15 minutes of fame.

Yet expectations for Cambodia’s chairmanship are low, owing to the country’s past obstructionism in ASEAN, its outright alignment with China, and the sheer number of challenges the region faces. The Biden administration is working to allay such concerns by preemptively engaging Cambodia. But with limited trade and investment—not to mention frosty diplomatic ties and an increasingly fraught security relationship—Washington has little leverage over Phnom Penh. Cambodian obstruction or inaction is thus likely.

Stasis, however, will push foreign powers to engage ASEAN members on a bilateral basis, thereby weakening the bloc’s claims to regional centrality. A failed or even stagnant Cambodian chairmanship will therefore accelerate ASEAN’s decline, which will proceed not with a bang, but with a slow, drawn-out whimper.

In normal times, inaction would be acceptable. ASEAN would make it through the year with limited controversy and few deliverables. Some progress would be made on the sidelines. Everybody would move on and do it again next year. But in 2022, there will be far too many ongoing crises for ASEAN to remain inert.

First, of course, is Covid-19.

After fending off the pandemic’s worst in 2020, Southeast Asia has in 2021 faced a massive outbreak. But on the back of increased vaccination rates (in many cases with Chinese vaccines of questionable efficacy) some countries are relaxing restrictions to “live with the virus”: Cambodia has declared itself fully reopened, with in-person school having resumed on November 1.

But Covid-19 has exacerbated Southeast Asia’s inequality and social divisions, which risks political instability. Most countries’ fiscal responses, while relatively small, have been crucial to the region’s limited recovery so far. Yet given rising global interest rates, which means increased borrowing costs and pressure on local currencies, smaller countries will have little choice but to limit these expansionary macroeconomic policies.

To prevent further societal scarring, ASEAN must therefore seek financial and capacity-building support from a diverse swath of international partners. China will come to the table regardless of how active ASEAN is. But Southeast Asia cannot afford to rely on just one country. The region needs to engage the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and others on a multilateral level to secure these funds. Forcing Southeast Asian countries to seek out such support on a bilateral level—the natural result of an idle ASEAN—will slow and fragment the region’s recovery, raising tensions within the bloc.

Second, there is the violent conflict that has consumed Myanmar since the military’s February coup.

Cambodia was initially hesitant to speak out against the junta, citing ASEAN’s principle of noninterference, but its patience has worn thin: Phnom Penh supported ASEAN’s decision to accept only a “nonpolitical” representative from Myanmar, thereby excluding the junta from last month’s virtual summit hosted by Brunei. Hun Sen defended this step in surprisingly strong terms, saying, “ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN’s framework. Myanmar abandoned its right. . . . Now we are in the situation of ASEAN minus one. It is not because of ASEAN, but because of Myanmar.”

ASEAN’s decision predictably incensed the Myanmar military. Cambodia, then, comes into its chairmanship while Myanmar teeters toward civil war as the junta refuses to back down or seriously engage the bloc. Cambodia has promised to set up an ad hoc task force to work with Myanmar’s “conflicting parties quietly or through back-door diplomacy,” but it is hard to imagine this effort being effective. The crisis will drag on, and ASEAN will need Cambodia to play a strong leadership role in stopping it.

Cambodia’s government, however, has no commitment to democracy, human rights, or any of the other principles that Malaysia, Indonesia, and others have said they want reinstated in Myanmar. Rather than work with these countries, Cambodia will be more likely to defer to China, which for now remains nominally pro-junta but is increasingly fed up with the junta’s inability to control the country and protect Chinese investments. (Beijing is accordingly maintaining ties with and providing vaccines to some of the ethnic armed organizations that have long battled Myanmar’s military.) Cambodian leaders, meanwhile, have little personal interest in Myanmar, lacking strong historical ties or significant trade with the country. The likely result is paralysis, which will allow the crisis to fester and undermine ASEAN’s image.

Third, the South China Sea remains an albatross.

When Cambodia last chaired ASEAN in 2012, the bloc failed to issue a joint statement for the first time because Cambodia refused to accept language criticizing China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Cambodia has since drawn even closer to China, repeatedly blocking ASEAN statements that are critical of Beijing. China, for its part, has only become more aggressive in the South China Sea.

Just as with Myanmar, the bloc will not make much progress. Cambodia does not want to touch security issues because they are sensitive and consensus will be difficult to build, as the Cambodian government has admitted. Even if Phnom Penh does not outright block statements as it has in recent years, Cambodia will push the South China Sea off the agenda as much as possible.

Thanks to Cambodia’s hesitance and pro-China outlook, along with ASEAN member states’ disagreements and the bloc’s consensus-based process, it is difficult to imagine ASEAN and China finalizing a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea in the next year. The two sides agreed on a preamble in August 2021, but more substantive negotiations have proven difficult and produced little progress. This inaction will likely lead to increased tensions.

Fourth, a Cambodia-led ASEAN will struggle to navigate the growing U.S.-China rivalry, in which most Southeast Asian countries do not want to choose a side.

As chair, Hun Sen’s Cambodia will serve as ASEAN’s spokesperson and chief executive. Cambodia counts on China for nearly 90 percent of its foreign direct investment; it has reportedly signed a deal that will give Chinese forces access to a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand; it supported China’s human rights abuses at the United Nations; and it even banned the Taiwanese flag from being displayed in Cambodia. Clearly, the government of Hun Sen, who has extolled Beijing because the “Chinese leaders respect me highly and treat me as an equal,” is not best positioned to maintain ASEAN’s careful balancing act.

Under Cambodia, the bloc will more likely tilt a bit toward China, or at least lie prone while China and the United States duke it out. This latter position—of passivity in the face of foreign rivalry—might seem acceptable, but the history of the Cold War in which ASEAN was founded teaches otherwise. Nobody will look out for Southeast Asia’s best interests if regional states don’t do it themselves through ASEAN.

Unfortunately, Cambodia appears unwilling to accept that challenge. Its time as chair will likely see ASEAN stagnate, reinforcing international claims of the bloc’s futility and prompting foreign powers to further prioritize bilateral engagements with its members.

Charles Dunst is an associate with Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice and a non-resident adjunct fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program