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

MANILA – With Cambodia taking over the rotational chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), key regional states are closing ranks on sensitive geopolitical challenges. 

The last time Cambodian strongman Hun Sen was in charge of the regional body, ASEAN failed for the first time in its history to issue a joint communique amid disagreements on South China Sea disputes that pit regional states against China. 

A staunch Beijing ally, the Cambodian leader openly blocked even the discussion of the maritime disputes, much to the chagrin of ASEAN founding members such as the Philippines and Vietnam. In response, a perturbed Indonesia embarked on high-stakes shuttle-diplomacy to prevent a further breakdown in the regional body. 

Hun Sen has also raised concerns by breaking with much of the region through what some perceive as his “cowboy diplomacy” towards Myanmar’s brutal military junta, which seized power from an elected government in February 2021.

To avoid a repetition of the diplomatic disaster back in 2012, when the very viability of ASEAN as a force for regional stability came into question, Indonesia and the Philippines have pushed for greater regional unity on both maritime security and Myanmar. 

In principle, ASEAN operates on a consensus-based decision-making process. But the regional body’s chairman, which is selected on a rotational basis among the 10 member states, wields considerable influence over the bloc’s direction.

For instance, the chairman, personified by the head of state of the host nation, has the power to select issues to be prioritized by the regional body, thus potentially excluding those that don’t befit his or her own interests. 

The chairman also has the power to issue unilateral statements when the 10 members fail to arrive at a consensus over sensitive and divisive issues. 

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a recent bilateral meeting. Photo: Facebook

Back in 2012, Cambodia’s Hun Sen leveraged his prerogatives as the ASEAN chairman by deliberately excluding the South China Sea issue from regional discussions amid the months-long naval stand-off between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal. 

Deeply dependent on Chinese largesse and strategic patronage, the Cambodian leader has repeatedly sought to block the maritime disputes from regional discussion.

Even years after Cambodia’s chairmanship, he opposed ASEAN discussions of the Philippines’ arbitration win over China on their seas disputes at The Hague by openly complaining: “It is very unjust for Cambodia, using Cambodia to counter China. They use us and curse us … this is not about laws, it is totally about politics.” 

Given Cambodia’s subsequent deeper lurch into China’s strategic orbit, with the Southeast Asian country expected by many to become the first regional state to host a Chinese naval facility, it’s highly likely that Hun Sen will once again try to undermine ASEAN unity on the South China Sea issue. 

According to Kimkong Heng, a visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Center, “Cambodia will likely continue to assert that the claimant states should address the disputes bilaterally and stay away from getting involved in this hot issue.” 

Meanwhile, Hun Sen is also pushing for direct engagement with Mynamar’s junta, following his meeting with military-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Wunna Maung Lwin in Phnom Penh last month.

The Cambodia leader is also expected to become the first regional leader to visit Mynamar after last year’s putsch against the democratically-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

This stands in direct opposition to ASEAN’s stance, which disinvited junta leaders from last year’s summit amid concerns over the lack of progress in the implementation of an agreed “Five Point Consensus”, which aims to restore democracy and end violence in Myanmar.  

Anticipating setbacks under Hun Sen’s chairmanship, Indonesia and the Philippines are taking matters into their own hands and, accordingly, calling for greater regional cooperation.

The head of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), Vice Admiral Aan Kurnia, recently invited counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam for a meeting in February in order to “share experiences and foster brotherhood.”

The Indonesian official emphasized the importance of presenting a “coordinated approach” to regional security issues, particularly in the South China Sea, and “how to respond in the field when we face the same ‘disturbance’” without directly mentioning China.

A China Coast Guard ship passes near an Indonesian warship in a July 2019 file photo. Photo: Indonesian Navy’s Western Region Fleet Command

Although Indonesia is not a direct claimant state, it has been at the receiving end of China’s “gray zone” harassment in the so-called North Natuna Sea, which overlaps with the southernmost tip of Beijing’s expansive nine-dash line, which claims the bulk of the South China Sea. 

Between December 2019 and January 2020, as many as 60 Chinese vessels crossed into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), prompting Jakarta to file multiple diplomatic protests as well as to deploy fighter jets and warships to the area.

More recently, Indonesia also faced repeated harassment by China over its energy exploration activities in the area in cooperation with foreign partners, including Britain’s Harbour Energy and Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft. 

The Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, known as Bakamla, hailed last month’s completion of a six-month drilling project on Indonesia’s continental shelf in the North Natuna Sea as a “victory” over China’s constant objections.

Vice Admiral Aan Kurnia claimed the country “scored a point” against China despite the constant shadowing by Chinese coast guard vessels near the drilling area last year. 

“The point is, they [Chinese vessels] did not disturb us physically and the drilling was completed,” Aan proudly told reporters in his year-ender review last month. Now, Indonesia is calling for greater regional cooperation among other affected countries, which have also been on the receiving end of Chinese maritime assertiveness in recent years. 

Satya Pratama, a senior Indonesian government official, said the Bakamla-proposed meeting would complement the ASEAN Coast Guard forum and serve as a “great opportunity for ASEAN coast guards and maritime law enforcement agencies to talk and cooperate with each other.”

He also emphasized the necessity for Indonesia to stand firm and inspire other ASEAN countries by “explaining Indonesia’s intention so that others can understand and follow suit.”

During the ASEAN-G7 foreign ministers meeting last month, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L Locsin Jr also took a tough stance on maritime disputes. 

“Recent incidents and the heightened tension in the South China Sea remain a serious concern. The Philippines fired diplomatic protests for every incursion and opposed the application of China’s Coast Guard Law beyond the limits of its maritime entitlements under the 1982 UNCLOS,” Locsin said during his address.

He warned, “China can claim what it wants and say what it wants, but it cannot do anything it pleases without blowback from the Philippines.”

The Filipino diplomatic chief also lamented the lack of progress in the ASEAN-China negotiations over a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which have dragged on intermittently. 

“These worrying developments underscore the urgency and importance of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he said, emphasizing Manila’s efforts on this front as the Country Coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations. 

“But negotiations for the Code of Conduct, even in our watch, went nowhere. I opposed the exclusion of any outside power from the South China Sea. That would create a semi-legal sphere of influence repugnant to the comity of all nations,” he added. 

Myanmar’s anti-junta protesters have not appreciated ASEAN’s perceived engagement with the junta. Photo: Twitter

The two ASEAN founding members also emphasized the necessity for a firm and united stance on Myanmar. Last year, Indonesia spearheaded regional efforts to nudge the Myanmar junta towards the restoration of a democratic government. 

This week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held conversations with Hun Sen in order to coordinate regional efforts towards Myanmar’s junta and, accordingly, discourage any soft-pedaling by the new ASEAN chairman. 

According to a statement by the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation: “The two leaders also exchanged views on the current developments in Myanmar and underscored the importance to forge ASEAN’s efforts to assist Myanmar in finding suitable solutions to achieve national reconciliation, durable peace, stability and development.”

For its part, the Philippines has emphasized the need to “continue to push for the swift and full implementation of the Five-Point Consensus” and criticized the junta’s “refusal to give the special envoy of the ASEAN chair access to all stakeholders, as intended by the Consensus” as “disappointing.”

“Myanmar’s military authorities must demonstrate commitment to the Consensus by working with the special envoy,” Locsin said in his statement before ASEAN and G7 counterparts last month, calling on the junta leaders to protect the basic rights of their citizens. 

“In this time of the pandemic, the people of Myanmar should be protected from violence and harassment,” he added, while vowing to “continue working with ASEAN in its efforts to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the crisis.”