In her capacity at the time as Myanmar's state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen walk past the honor guard during her visit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on April 30, 2019. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The year 2022 was ushered in after a tumultuous and pandemic-ridden period for the past couple of years. Despite the emergence of new variants of Covid-19, further imposition of travel restrictions, and soaring infection numbers, the Southeast Asian region and, by extension, the world hope for slightly better times ahead.

As for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the mantle of chairmanship has been passed to Cambodia, after Brunei concluded its term last year. As a matter of fact, ASEAN chairmanship is determined by a norm of alphabetical order. This has been the region’s diplomatic template since ASEAN’s inception in 1967.

Cambodia, as the region’s new chair, will be involved in strategic logistics, in particular to host all member states, including 11 dialogue partners (with the latest inclusion of the United Kingdom), to a multitude of ASEAN summits, including the ASEAN Regional Forum in mid-2022, followed by the ASEAN Summit and East Asian Summit at the end of the year.

This is a tall order for Cambodia, for it is not only a matter of logistics but also of strategic nuance from major powers such as the United States and China. The rift between those two major powers is ongoing, as US primacy in the international order is being challenged by China. 

However, Cambodia’s position as the regional chair is often marred with skepticism, let alone expecting any breakthrough deliverables.

For one, it was under Cambodia’s chairmanship in 2012 that for the first time in history there was no issuance of a joint statement after a regional forum. In the words of then-Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong, “I requested that we issue the joint communiqué without mention of the South China Sea dispute … but some member countries repeatedly insisted to put the issue of the Scarborough Shoal.” 

This was much to the chagrin of the Philippines and Vietnam. They insisted on critical language on China’s aggression in the South China Sea because of recurring maritime standoffs.

Moreover, in 2016, the regional bloc was once again thrown into disarray when Cambodia singlehandedly opposed any mention of disputed claims in an ASEAN communiqué. 

Many believe that Cambodia’s pro-China attitude is meant to reap economic benefits. Cambodia was then, and still is, among China’s major economic beneficiaries. 

The South China Sea issue has long topped the region’s agenda. This is given China’s militarization in the contested areas that transformed its artificial islands into military-sized runways, anti-missile weapons and other platforms.

Despite the long-standing discussion on its Code of Conduct (COC) – a set of norms, rules and responsibilities over conduct in the disputed waters, which started back in 2002 – it is still yet to be concluded. Even though it was due to conclude last year, it is still stalled, with the pandemic blamed.

In this vein, given the close relationship between Cambodia and China, it is likely that the COC negotiation will devolve into China’s favor.

Myanmar challenge

Another lingering issue in the bloc is the Myanmar crisis. 

After the military coup against the civilian government in February 2021, Myanmar has seen ongoing violence, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners. Protests in major cities have ensued with a large number of crackdowns. International communities and ASEAN have since pressured the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw, as it is known, to halt the violence.  

Myanmar’s military was excluded from attending ASEAN meetings last October – a decision due to the lack of substantial progress and cooperation to implement the Five-Point Consensus. The latter, a framework developed by ASEAN, aimed to restore peace in Myanmar after military chief Min Aung Hlaing led the campaign against the elected civilian government. Despite the promise from the army chief to comply with the Five-Point Consensus, no concrete result was shown. 

Last month, the junta’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, flew to Phnom Penh and met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said he would reciprocate and visit Naypyidaw early this year, under his nation’s capacity as ASEAN chair.  

And true enough, Hun Sen’s inaugural visit to Myanmar took place on January 7-8. The junta rolled out the red carpet welcoming Hun Sen, as the military regime understood well that this would boost its domestic legitimacy. But Hun Sen’s arrival was also met with protests among angry civilians and civil-rights groups.

But it is noteworthy to highlight that though the Tatmadaw has agreed to cease violence and set up a platform to allow humanitarian assistance among both regional and international stakeholders, this could become an effort to win temporarily the hearts and minds of discontented ASEAN member states.

Indonesia’s patience with Myanmar, for one, is wearing thin, and the same goes for other like-minded ASEAN states. Clearly it is now time to operationalize a peace plan, and only time will determine if a ceasefire is really happening.

But as of now, there is no clear indication that a comprehensive stakeholder consultation, which inevitably would involve Aung San Su Kyi, the deposed leader, would occur when Hun Sen oversees negotiations with the Myanmar junta.

The bottom line is that Indonesia as the next ASEAN chair will take over next year with basic groundwork laid by Cambodia. But Indonesia’s attitude may depend on how things have developed in Myanmar too by that time.

Indeed, the South China Sea dispute and Myanmar crisis will definitively set the agenda for how Cambodia steers the ASEAN chairmanship this year.

Follow Nik Luqman on Twitter @NLuqman

Nik Luqman

Nik Luqman is a political analyst and freelance writer focused on Southeast Asia. He is a research fellow at the IKMAS-Nippon Foundation in Malaysia.