Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen presiding over an ASEAN event in a file photo. Image: Twitter

Cambodia and Singapore are in a backchannel war of words over a retired Singaporean diplomat’s suggestion that Phnom Penh should be booted from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc if an external power is controlling its policies.  

As a thinly veiled accusation that Cambodia, as well as Laos, are dutybound to the whims and commands of China, both bloc members’ main ally and financier, the ex-official’s comment comes amid an intensifying rivalry between the US and China for leverage in the strategic region.

“True neutrality means knowing your own interests, taking positions based on your own interests and not allowing others to define your interests for you by default,” Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said during an October 23 webinar hosted the by Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

As relatively new ASEAN members, Cambodia and Laos “have some difficult choices to make,” he added. “And if they should make wrong choices, they will confront ASEAN as a whole with difficult choices. We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight.”

Asia Times understands that officials in Phnom Penh were incensed over the weekend after reading Bilahari’s remarks, which add to a growing chorus of accusations from certain foreign governments that Cambodia’s close ties with Beijing are becoming a new source of regional instability.

Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at the Grand Hyatt New York, September 19, 2017. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit/AFP

The first riposte from Phnom Penh came on Tuesday when an “open letter” was published in the Cambodian government’s mouthpiece Fresh News, significantly ramping up the tensions in less than diplomatic language.  

Bilahari’s remarks were “repulsive” and “sensationalist, inconsistent and at times contradictory”, said the letter, apparently written by former and active Cambodian diplomats, according to sources familiar with the situation. There was no immediate indication that China had a hand in the letter’s language.

“Lest he is senile and forgetful”, it went on, Bilahari has forgotten that “ASEAN has never been designed to retain a supra-national authority to dictate the economic, political, strategic direction of its member states,” a reference to the so-called “ASEAN way” of non-interference in the internal affairs of other bloc member states.

Moreover, the anonymous authors of the open letter went on to question Singapore’s domestic politics. “Those ‘Wolf Warriors’ and so-called think-tankers,” it stated, referring to Bilahari and the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, “conveniently ignore the very fact that some regional countries, including Singapore…have provided military basing or leasing rights to external powers for far too long.”

Singapore, often regarded as a staunch strategic ally of the US, last year renewed an agreement to allow American troops to use its bases until 2035. Britain, which has new strategic ambitions for the region, also retains some access to the island-state’s military sites.

But Singapore has perhaps most avidly promoted ASEAN neutrality amid the intensifying US-China superpower rivalry. Southeast Asia is “at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated recently.

US and Singaporean soldiers train together to boost interoperability during Exercise Tiger Balm 2019 in July 2019. Image: Twitter/@INDOPACOM

Cambodia is now caught in the middle of the major powers. “The Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of a great power competition with China,” US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said recently. “We’re not going to cede this region – an inch of ground, if you will – to another country.”

In early 2017, Phnom Penh postponed historic joint-military exercises with the US and instead began drilling with Chinese troops. Months later, Cambodia’s only viable opposition party was forcibly dissolved after being accused of plotting a US-backed coup, allegations that have never been proven.

The following year, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all parliamentary seats at a rigged election, turning Cambodia into a de facto one-party state, to the chagrin of the democracy-promoting West and with no complaint from authoritarian China.

Cambodia-US tensions have cooled ever since, despite recent attempts at rapprochement from Washington. Meanwhile, its relations have gone from strength to strength with China, now its largest trading partner, creditor and geopolitical defender internationally. This month, China and Cambodia signed the latter’s first-ever bilateral free-trade agreement.

For years now, Phnom Penh has been plagued by rumors that it intends to allow Chinese troops to be stationed on Cambodian soil at the Ream Naval Base, a potential violation of the country’s constitution. Hun Sen has constantly and sometimes furiously denied the allegations his government will or has given China a 30-year exclusive access agreement for the base.

However, a steady drip of comments from US officials – including by the Pentagon and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent months – has put Phnom Penh on the backfoot and raised questions about the CPP’s nationalist credentials among a Cambodian populace increasingly prone to anti-Chinese sentiment in response to Beijing’s growing commercial presence in the country.

The Chinese troop allegations have also stoked concerns among Cambodia’s neighbors, including co-ASEAN members Vietnam and Thailand. A Chinese naval base with stationed troops on Cambodia’s southern coast on the Gulf of Siam would fundamentally enhance China’s ability to intimidate states who have rival claims with China in the South China Sea.

There is now an ongoing debate among Cambodia watchers about who actually wrote the “open letter” published on Tuesday, as it came with no byline and no list of signatories, even though it stated it was composed by “a group of retired and active Cambodian diplomats.”

Not only was its language undiplomatic, it was also written in an idiosyncratic manner for apparent professionals. “Anyhow, back to the substance,” began the third paragraph. Several spelling mistakes in the English language copy suggest it was hastily translated and published.

Best of friends: Xi Jinping (L) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on December 21, 2009. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen R) toast in Phnom Penh in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Moreover, they seem to have overlooked much of Bilahari’s writing and speeches from recent months, which are often more strongly-worded against Cambodia than his comments made at last week’s webinar.

One published last month described “Cambodia’s attempt to be helpful to China” as “singularly clumsy, if not downright stupid.” He added that “it was a mistake for ASEAN to have hastily expanded its membership in the 1990s without adequate socialization of new members,” a reference to Cambodia’s joining of the bloc that decade.

In any case, as the letter was published through an informal diplomatic channel, Phnom Penh probably wanted to get its message across to Singapore but maintain plausible deniability that it isn’t the official position of the Cambodian government and hence avoid possible diplomatic repercussions.

In the same way, there are suspicions that Bilahari’s remarks were also made to imply the actual opinion of the Singaporean government via alternative, unofficial channels. Some analysts believe that Singapore’s former permanent secretaries to the foreign ministry, such as Bilahari, are often tasked with discussing controversial topics that the city-state’s active diplomats are instructed to avoid in public.

CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan sought to publicly downplay the rising intra-ASEAN tensions when he told Voice of America that Bilahari “is just a lone view reflecting his own political and ideological mindsets.” Yet it remains to be seen whether this war of words is picked up formally by either the Cambodian or Singaporean governments.

Some wonder if it was just a coincidence that the “open letter” apparently written by Cambodian diplomats was published the same day that Singapore’s outgoing ambassador to Phnom Penh, Michael Tan Keng Siong, had his farewell meeting with CPP grandee Heng Samrin.

The tiff comes against the backdrop of recent rising tensions in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels have frequently intimidated Vietnam’s attempts to explore for oil in its claimed parts of the waters. Malaysia, meanwhile, made a formal submission to the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on its claims in the maritime area in late 2019.

Beijing quickly rejected the submission, but other rival claimants, namely the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, then sent their own legal positions on their sea claims to the UN.

China’s nine-dash line claim to South China Sea overlaps with many Southeast Asian countries’ EEZs. Source: Facebook

Rather than directly challenging these claims under international law, Beijing says it is committed to a Code of Conduct (COC) with ASEAN states, which would bilaterally establish protocols on how to solve disputes between the rival claimants and prevent outside nations, namely the US, from interfering in the decisions.  

But ASEAN states remain utterly divided over how to proceed. Some, like Vietnam, seemingly want to frame the COC around the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a proposal Beijing staunchly opposes.

At the same time, Cambodia and Laos, neither of which have claims in the sea, are suspected of pushing China’s agenda and subverting any counter-China consensus within the regional bloc.  

When Cambodia last held the ASEAN chair in 2012 it refused to publish a joint ASEAN communiqué because it contained references to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

This was “shocking and could have posed an existential crisis to ASEAN,” Bilahari wrote in another article last month. “ASEAN’s near-death experience seems to have quickly instilled a modicum of common sense both in China and its lackey. China is not out to destroy ASEAN, only capture it.”

Four years later, Cambodia again pressured ASEAN to tone down a communiqué over its proposed language about China’s foreign policy in the region. In an apparent quid pro quo, Beijing pledged an additional US$600m in aid and loans to Cambodia weeks later.

One possible explanation for the Cambodia-Singapore tit-for-tat is that city-state and others in Southeast Asia are wary of what will happen when Cambodia again assumes ASEAN’s annually-rotating chair in 2022.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in deep discussions. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

If the COC isn’t agreed to next year – the date Beijing has set for a resolution, which most observers say isn’t feasible – it may well be decided in 2022, at which time Phnom Penh could use its chairmanship to pressure the bloc to accept an agreement most favorable to China.

Bilahari’s comments could then be read as a gentle reminder from Singapore that Cambodia needs to start putting the interests of its Southeast Asian neighbors ahead of China’s or risk possible expulsion from the bloc.  

If it ever comes to removing Cambodia from ASEAN, Bilahari remarked last week, “it will be for the future. But it is worth thinking about even if only as a contingency.”