China looms large over Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship

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Nov 22, 2021, 2:54:38 AM (13 days ago) Nov 22
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China looms large over Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship

As Phnom Penh takes over regional bloc's rotating leadership speculation is rife it will act to favor Beijing's interests
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen presiding over an ASEAN event in a file photo. Image: Twitter

This expert Q&A first appeared on Asia Times’ Southeast Asia Insider weekly newsletter. If you are not a subscriber, please sign up here.

In the aftermath of a precedent-setting decision to exclude Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in October, the regional organization finds itself at a crossroads, with its consensus-based process under strain as one of its ten members descents into civil war and pariah status.
 
Events in Myanmar have put the bloc’s credibility on the line, and critics have pointed to Brunei, which has held ASEAN’s annual rotating chairmanship this year, for failing to act decisively in its response to the political crisis. In what is likely to be his last tenure as ASEAN’s chair, Cambodia’s premier Hun Sen will helm the regional grouping in 2022.
 
Amid reports of Chinese lobbying for Min Aung Hlaing’s inclusion at next week’s ASEAN-China summit and stiff resistance on the part of regional countries, questions are rising as to how Phnom Penh’s close ties to Beijing could impact its handling of the Myanmar debacle as ASEAN’s chair, as well as other geopolitical challenges confronting the region.
 
Asia Times’ correspondent and Southeast Asia Insider editor Nile Bowie recently interviewed Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an esteemed Thai political scientist and professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, on what to expect from Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN for a soon-to-published story. Here are excerpts from their discussion.
 
Is there any reason to believe Cambodia will succeed where Brunei has so far failed in spearheading an ASEAN-led solution to Myanmar?
 
Brunei’s performance was barely par for the chairmanship. It managed to have a meeting and come up with a five-point consensus. But after that, Brunei was not able to put any kind of significant pressure on the State Administration Council (SAC) to come to the table. Min Aung Hlaing basically took ASEAN for a ride, and Brunei really did not have an answer for it.

At the latest summit, ASEAN’s hand was forced, which meant that it had to make a call on Myanmar. I see ASEAN’s exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing from the summit as a concession from a position of weakness. I don’t see that as an ASEAN victory at all.

I see it as an ASEAN concession because it did not want to have a summit without the likes of President Biden, Kishida of Japan, Australia’s Morrison, all these leaders. The East Asia Summit might have been aborted had Min Aung Hlaing been included.

Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has vast economic resources at his disposal. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

Under Brunei’s chairmanship, apart from the five-point consensus, it was not implemented and Brunei did not succeed in putting up enough pressure. Now, I think Cambodia will have more weight than Brunei because Brunei is a small country that has limited capacity and is very top-down. The Brunei baggage is not something we’ll see with Cambodia.
 
When Cambodia last had the ASEAN chairmanship there were controversies around the South China Sea and questions about whether Phnom Penh was serving Beijing’s interests in its stance. Do you think Cambodia has something to prove this time around by asserting a more independent posture?  
 
2012, as you know, was a watershed year in a bad way. ASEAN for the first time failed to issue a joint statement because Cambodia as chair was doing the bidding of China on the South China Sea. This is almost like a nightmare for ASEAN, that the haunted chairmanship of Cambodia will be repeated.

I think Hun Sen will not want to repeat that infamy in 2012 when he was seen as undermining ASEAN and seen as China’s stooge. However, China will press him hard, but on Myanmar, they might be able to find some compromise, they might have some leeway.

China would be very concerned about the South China Sea, about US-China relations, about Taiwan, about ASEAN’s role in the US-China competition and rivalry. But on Myanmar, I think China might let Cambodia have a pretty free hand. I think Hun Sen will have some latitude. Look at what Hun Sen said about Myanmar at the ASEAN summit.

“Now we are in the situation of ASEAN-minus-one. That is not because of ASEAN but because of Myanmar itself. ASEAN did not expel Myanmar from ASEAN’s framework. Myanmar abandoned its right.”

– Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, speaking at ASEAN’s summit in October as the organization’s incoming chair. 

His posture is critical, so Myanmar doesn’t sound like it will get a free pass. I think maybe Hun Sen might look at Myanmar as an opportunity to regain some credibility without China’s opposition.

When it comes to the South China Sea, that’s a no-go zone for China. That’s something that China will put a lot of resources into. But when it comes to Myanmar, China itself is not so happy.

I think the Xi Jinping government in Beijing is displeased with what’s happened in Myanmar because it threw a spanner in the works of China’s geostrategic plans for Southeast Asia. China already had the CMEC, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

China is piping in natural gas purchased from Myanmar, which is its corridor to the Indian Ocean. Now with all that has happened with the coup, it has upset China’s plans, so they’re not pleased. There’s also a lot of tension within Myanmar against Chinese business interests. Chinese workers and Chinese factories have been attacked.

Black smoke billows from the industrial zone of Hlaing Thar Yar township in Yangon, Myanmar on March 14, 2021, after attacks on Chinese-run factories in Myanmar’s biggest city drew demands Monday from Beijing for protection for their property and employees. Photo: Agencies/Screengrab

Beijing would prefer to work with the previous NLD government, which it had already worked out a number of plans: CMEC, natural gas and natural resources, and so on. At the same time, the Chinese are not going to cut off Myanmar. But Beijing might allow Hun Sen to take a fairly hard line on the Tatmadaw and what’s happened since the coup.
 
Will we see top-level outreach to the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) by ASEAN under Cambodia’s chairmanship? Or might individual countries like Malaysia and Indonesia act as liaisons with the NUG going forward just as they’ve done during Brunei’s chairmanship?
 
Overtures to the NUG will likely come not because of ASEAN and Cambodia as chair, it will be more because of the Tatmadaw. The SAC is intransigent and hunkering down for a long fight. So even if Cambodia is going to apply some pressure, even if Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore pile on the pressure, the SAC is going to stand its ground. It is already evident. I don’t see the SAC budging, that’s why I see a stalemate at two levels.
 
There’s a stalemate within the country, where the military has power but no complete control. Armed resistance groups around the country are putting up quite a fight and taking some Tatmadaw lives.

On the ground, there is a battlefield stalemate, which means the Tatmadaw has an overwhelming force of arms, but it cannot really defeat and wipe out what is now an armed guerrilla resistance movement around the country.

And then at the ASEAN level, it’s a stalemate because ASEAN is not going to kick out Myanmar, and Myanmar is not going to resign or quit. The next step would be for the special envoy to meet with opposition groups, and the step after that would be to promote some kind of dialogue, getting the different sides to talk while trying to play a role of the intermediary, leading to some kind of settlement or some kind of a deal.

But to get on the ground to talk to the different sides, I don’t see the SAC allowing that.

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