Will History Repeat Itself? Cambodia's 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship
By Roshni, Editor
On October 28, 2021, Brunei handed over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chairmanship to Cambodia, which began its third rotation as ASEAN chair since the organisation’s inception.  Generally, the role of the ASEAN chair is not one that comes with controversies. However, for anyone interested in the workings of ASEAN, or even the Southeast Asian region, Cambodia taking up the ASEAN chair is an interesting one, given the historical baggage it carries. In this article, I explore the narratives that have arisen with Cambodia’s ascent to the ASEAN chair in lieu of its 2012 tenure, the challenges it will face in 2022, and the implications for member states such as Singapore.
The Role of the ASEAN chair
The ASEAN chair rotates annually according to the alphabetical order of the English names of member states. According to Article 32 of the ASEAN Charter, the state assuming the position chairs ‘the ASEAN Summit and related summits, the ASEAN Coordinating Council, the three ASEAN Community Councils, relevant ASEAN Sectoral Ministerial Bodies and senior officials, and the Committee of Permanent Representatives’.  In 2022, Cambodia leads ASEAN with the theme ‘ASEAN A.C.T.: Addressing Challenges Together’.  This theme is highly relevant to the climate Cambodia has to deal with during its tenure – one of increasing geopolitical tensions, the coup in Myanmar, and the ongoing pandemic and its ramifications.
The chair, in its duties and initiatives, actively promotes the interests of ASEAN as a whole within and outside the organisation, and leads timely responses to crises that face the region. The chair does this by acting as the representative of the organisation, facilitating meetings and summits, and initiating new meetings and programs to facilitate ASEAN unity and cooperation. However, one of the additional important roles the chair plays is that of establishing agreement between all member states. Given ASEAN’s diplomatic norms of consensus-building and compromise, the chair has to possess the necessary expertise to guide all member states towards unanimity, despite each member state’s diverging national interests.  Similarly, the chair should not use its position to pursue its own national interests, or allow itself to be swayed by external parties, since this diverges from its aim of prioritising regional interests (within its capacity of the chair).  While striking a balance between one’s national interests and wider regional interests can be difficult when one has the power and platform to conflate the two, it is an art the chair must master if it is to maintain the legitimacy of ASEAN.
Issues Behind Cambodia’s 2012 Tenure as ASEAN Chair
Keeping in mind the aforementioned issues of building unanimity among all member states, the necessary separation of national and regional interests, and preventing foreign interference, it is no surprise that Cambodia’s previous chairmanship stint in 2012 would leave one with low expectations for its performance in 2022.
In 2012, for the first time in 45 years, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué after its Foreign Ministers Meeting under the chairmanship of Cambodia. The inability to establish a joint communiqué was rendered a failure on the part of ASEAN, given that it prides itself on unanimity and consensus among parties, usually reflected within the communiqué. A look into the specifics pointed towards the discussions on the South China Sea disputes, whereby Cambodia constantly rejected language in the communiqué that criticised China’s aggression in the Scarborough Shoal and exclusive economic zones. This language was propagated by states such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which expressed that the South China Sea issue extended beyond the bilateral level.  Later on, it was suggested that Cambodian representatives were actually sharing the drafts of the communiqué with Chinese interlocutors, before going back to the ASEAN closed-door meetings to reject them for these phrasings. 
In this incident, Cambodia failed to establish unity among all member states (especially claimant ones) on how to describe their discussions of the South China Sea disputes, and let its own national interests – its heavy reliance on China and necessity to remain in its good books – potentially get in the way of its role as the chairman. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has time and again repeated that he has to look towards Chinese support, because “if [he] didn’t rely on China, who would [he] rely on?” 
The actions of Cambodia aren’t necessarily surprising, given its close ties with China. Cambodia has often been described as a ‘vassal state’ of China, given its growing influence on Cambodia’s economy.  Even during the COVID-19 crisis, China pumped in fixed-asset investments of USD2.32 billion in 2021, an increase of 67% from USD1.39 billion in 2020.  China is also continually enhancing Cambodia’s infrastructural assets by refurbishing Sihanoukville and other travel destinations.  In addition, through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has provided funding for large transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructures.  China has seemingly used its economic power over Cambodia to press for the Kingdom to block any serious discussions of contentious issues such as the South China Sea dispute on a regional realm.  This has reduced the efficiency of ASEAN in tackling the issue as a regional bloc, and showcased Cambodia’s discomfort in tackling harder, contentious issues that affect its regional partners while abusing the seat to further their own interests.
Fast forward to 2022, and one of ASEAN’s hot-button issues continues to be the South China Sea dispute. Aligned with the 2022’s chairmanship theme, Prime Minister Hun Sen has certain goals he wishes to accomplish in 2022 with Cambodia as the chairman – improve the ongoing crisis in Myanmar so that ASEAN can function as a 10-member bloc once again, and to adopt a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea,  which is a framework that essentially outlines how to manage tensions and disputes that arise between claimant states.  The PM is aware of all the eyes on the 2022 chairmanship, especially on the South China Sea disputes. “Don’t toss Cambodia this hot potato and then expect us to juggle it on our own like in 2012,” he said in reference to the drafting of the COC during his chairmanship stint, and that no one should blame Cambodia if it cannot be done by 2022.  However, given the way in which Cambodia’s position was used to enhance its own (and even China’s) interest, it might not be unexpected for Cambodia to continue asserting its power as the chairman to further issues of interest to them, and possibly continue bidding in China’s interest.
Current Developments: The 2022 Chairmanship
So, what has happened in 2022, concerning Hun Sen’s goals as ASEAN Chair, and what are expectations for the chairmanship going forward?
In late 2021, Hun Sen told the public not to attempt to block him and to “give [him] the opportunity to deal with” the Myanmar crisis in his capacity as chairman.  Though much progress has not been made/discussed publicly on the issue of the COC, Hun Sen’s visit to Naypyidaw, Myanmar, in January 2022 sparked some conversations surrounding the chairman’s commitment to the Myanmar crisis, and bringing Myanmar back into ASEAN for it to function as a 10-member organisation again. The decision to visit junta leader Min Aung Hlaing seems to be made unilaterally without consultation with other member states, indicating that Cambodia might be once-again broadening its powers to advance its personal interests.  What was especially concerning was that the junta saw this visit as a show of support, though a statement was put out a month later to reiterate the Five Point Consensus, and member states’ joint view on the issue. While Cambodia’s active stance in the crisis shows a certain impetus in trying to solve the problem as 2022’s direction setter, the lack of a consultative approach may not sit well within other members of the organisation who also have direct stakes within the crisis. 
The question of China’s role returns once again in 2022, with respect to Cambodia’s active stance on Myanmar. In November 2021, China attempted to lobby ASEAN member states to allow Min Aung Hlaing to attend the ASEAN-China meeting hosted by the Chinese President. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei were the four countries identified by diplomatic and political sources that wished to ban the junta’s involvement in this regional meeting.  Though one cannot go so far as to argue that Hun Sen’s visit to Naypyidaw was because of Chinese desires to engage with the junta, we might be left wondering whether Cambodia would once again use its seat to ease Chinese lobbying efforts if discussions between ASEAN member states and Myanmar become more developed.
More recently in March 2022, Prak Sokhonn, special envoy for the ASEAN, visited Myanmar to engage with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. He also met up with members of the junta chief’s council and a delegation from the People’s Party whose leader was previously under fire for engaging directly with the junta. The special envoy’s visit did not meet the 5th goal outlined in ASEAN’s 5-point consensus, whereby all parties concerned with the situation in Myanmar should be engaged with. This would include groups such as the National League for Democracy (NLD), or individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi, though this was not possible given a lack of permission from the junta chief. 
Though it is left to be seen whether China would continue to make use of Cambodia as its mouthpiece within ASEAN, and whether Cambodia would be assertive of its own independent interests, current trajectories in its approach to the Myanmar crisis may point towards a repeat of 2012. What does this mean for other ASEAN member states, such as Singapore, who are supposed to be equally-important consultative members of the organisation?
The Role of Singapore and Other ASEAN Member States
Since Cambodia is the chairman for 2022, the country possesses some authority in deciding certain focuses or setting certain approaches during meetings. As such, member states would have to give in to Cambodia’s choices of topics of focus for the year. However, there is no denying that relevant topics, such as the South China Sea dispute, the Myanmar crisis, and even the Russian-Ukraine crisis, are issues that affect all countries at large. The issue then becomes one of alignment, or lack thereof – each member state would have its own imperatives and national interests at stake, and must find a way to balance that with a combined regional interest.
Though other members do not wield as much power as Cambodia when it comes to agenda-setting, they can still ensure their voices and perspectives are heard.
First, they can make their positions on issues (as ASEAN member states) clearer on the public front. After Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar in January in 2022, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that Cambodia should consult all relevant parties concerned with the Myanmar crisis and not just the military junta, and called for sticking to the Five Point Consensus as opposed to engaging with the junta, as previously discussed in 2021.  Similarly, after Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan’s participation in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in February 2022, the ministry released a statement on his exchanges with Cambodian DPM, Foreign Minister and ASEAN’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Prak Sokhonn. The statement reads: “[Minister Balakrishnan and DPM Sokhonn] agreed that until there was significant progress in implementing the Five-Point Consensus, ASEAN should maintain its decision reached at the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits of inviting a non-political representative from Myanmar to ASEAN meetings”. 
Such statements demonstrate Singapore’s interests as a member of ASEAN to not engage with the junta on the crisis, while also covertly expressing their disagreement with Hun Sen’s visit to the military junta in Naypyidaw. Since ASEAN runs on consensus-formation, discussions and agreements, by overtly expressing certain stances as an ASEAN member state, non-chair states can ensure Cambodia does not exploit its power as a chair and unilaterally make decisions that are not favoured by other states.
However, this ‘solution’ to ensure member states’ voices are heard come with their own setbacks. Despite the ability to ensure the chair cannot act independently when individual member states voice their opinions to issues publicly, the institutional limitations of consensus-building still remain a limiting factor in watering down major ASEAN-wide commitments, and results in less-than-effective solutions. Even if a member state were to have a certain policy stance, it cannot express it as an ASEAN-wide stance unless everyone agrees to do so - as such, the problem extends beyond the chairmanship, and is a more fundamental one.
Moreover, who is to stop the chair from acting independently? If Cambodia indeed visited Myanmar without consulting other ASEAN member states, who’s to say such a circumstance would not arise again, setting a precedent for future interventions by the ASEAN chair? Actions by the chair now may, therefore, potentially set a future precedent for other states to conduct their affairs in a similar fashion when they take over the chairmanship.
Second, member states can also look beyond ASEAN and focus on other multilateral organisations to influence critical issues, and this is currently most relevant with the Russia-Ukraine crisis. In ASEAN’s statement concerning the crisis, there was no use of the word ‘invasion’, nor was Russia named. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, shared that such ASEAN statements simply allowed “its members to duck and hide, and avoid taking a stand on sensitive issues”.  This weak showing by ASEAN was in stark contrast to the fact that 8 out of 10 ASEAN member states (including Singapore) voted favourably for a strongly-worded UN resolution condemning Russia’s actions. Herein lies the problem of ASEAN’s consensus-building – Vietnam and Laos’ abstaining of voting for the UN resolution showcased their stance on the issue, and may thus have affected how strongly-worded the ASEAN statement was.
Third, and perhaps most important to an individual state, would be to focus on its own bilateral relations, where it can actually further its own interests instead of requiring to balance it with a regional interest. States may not always be able to wait for regional organisations such as ASEAN to come to their rescue, and may have to act independently to defend its own interests to the best of its abilities. Singapore most recently showcased such a pivot away from relying on a regional stance to apply pressure, most recently on Russia with regards to the Ukraine-Russia crisis.  Engaging on issues individually allows a state to have its voice heard without it being diluted, and can serve as a useful tool as opposed to regional groups where multiple national interests must be balanced out.
Cambodia’s 2012 chairmanship stint has set relatively low expectations for its performance in 2022, given increasing Chinese influence in Cambodia, and a more assertive and authoritative Hun Sen. Though its chairmanship year started with aplomb, with Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar and engagement with the junta, things have plateaued and we are left waiting to see what’s next concerning the South China Sea COC, the Myanmar crisis, and possibly even bringing Myanmar back as an active player within the organisation.
Hun Sen should use Cambodia’s chairmanship to steer ASEAN back to relevance, such as through the effective handling of the Myanmar crisis head-on. While he may be able to use his authoritarian tendencies and subsequent proactive nature on issues to his advantage, he must ensure he does not replace regional interests with his own. Whereas other ASEAN member states such as Singapore may not be able to wield as much influence over agenda-setting, they should do their best to ensure the chair does not act in a unilateral fashion by advocating what is best for ASEAN at large and not simply one’s national interest.
 For more information on Cambodia’s focuses during its chairmanship, you can read Prime Minister Hun Sen’s speech at the Handover Ceremony on 28 October 2021: https://asean2022.mfaic.gov.kh/#
Roshni is a Year 4 student majoring in Political Science and Economics, and an editor at The Convergence. She is deeply interested in social and political issues in the region, such as those pertaining to migrants, race and religion, and freedom of expression. She is usually seen re-watching snippets and episodes from her favourite shows, finding new hiking spots, or both. She ultimately believes that we all have a part to play in informing others, or being informed ourselves, on pertinent issues around us.