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A Must for Cambodia to Restore the Trust of Its ASEAN Member States


Cambodia needs to take a step back in its relations with China to restore its ASEAN member states' trust.

Since the 2012 ASEAN fiasco when ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history, Cambodia has been more or less seen as a ‘proxy state’ of China. Despite efforts of pro-establishment analysts to obliterate Cambodia’s damaged image as such, the narrative has been widespread and repeatedly mentioned in most of the academic discussions on ASEAN affairs vis-à-vis China.

Moreover, recently, a suggestion has been made to expel Cambodia and Laos PDR from ASEAN, which should be interpreted as a gentle reminder rather than a clear intention against Cambodian interests in the grouping, reflecting an enduring sign of trust deficit.

Some have convincingly argued against the removal of Cambodia from the influential regional bloc given its progress and prosperity in socio-economic areas of regional cooperation. However, that does not mean being labelled as a ‘proxy state’ is good for the country since it affects the kingdom’s image internally and externally and impedes the confidence and trust-building among ASEAN member states.

For restoring the trust within the bloc, it is imperative for Cambodia to take a step backwards from being viewed as a ‘proxy state’ of a big power. Of course, ASEAN should also strengthen its institutions by making institutional reform to become a rule-based regional multilateral organisation or supranational body similar to the European Union so that small, weak states like Cambodia could rely on for better security protection as in the case of the territorial conflict with Thailand. But then, ASEAN member states are required to sacrifice a certain degree of their national sovereignty for the sake of the establishment of such a supranational institution, and none of them is ready to do so.

On many occasions, some observers have criticised the role of ASEAN in the Preah Vihear dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. In contrast, others have taken the issue to justify Cambodia’s seeking closer alignment with China. However, Sino-Cambodian relations have been consolidated since the July 1997 coup, culminating in signing the treaty of the comprehensive partnership in 2006 and the treaty of comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010. Apparently, instead of siding with Cambodia, China maintained neutrality in the Preah Vihear conflict.

Moreover, one should acknowledge that ASEAN did what it could as a weak regional institution to prevent and defuse tensions between its member states. Back then, ASEAN, under Singapore’s chairmanship, convened a special foreign ministers meeting when the armed clashes first broke out in 2008. Both conflicting parties agreed to resolve their differences and dispute on bilateral basics and restrained from further use of forces. Unfortunately, it could not stop the sporadic armed clashes. In 2009 and 2010, Thailand and Vietnam chaired ASEAN summits, respectively and kept the issue out of the bloc meetings due to the lack of consensus.

As a grave incident erupted again in 2011, Indonesia had to swap Brunei for the ASEAN chair, though according to the alphabetical order of the English name of the member states, Brunei was to take rotating ASEAN chair after Vietnam. In his capacity as ASEAN chair, Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa undertook intensive efforts by launching shuttle diplomacy – the ASEAN way – to facilitate bilateral dialogues between the two kingdoms. (The same man saved ASEAN face when its Foreign Ministers failed to issue a joint communique due to disagreement over the South China Sea issue involved China and some ASEAN members such as Vietnam and the Philippines.) Unprecedentedly, ASEAN efforts had been supported by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Then, ASEAN foreign ministers accepted Indonesian observers to monitor cease-fire agreements at the affected areas around Preah Vihear temple, which never happened due to disagreement on terms of reference.

As far as Indonesia’s natural leadership role in ASEAN as a conflict defuser or mediator is concerned, one may put it this way: two Buddhist kingdoms were fighting each other over the dispute of a Hindu temple, and a Muslim (dominated) country came out to intervene. This is what ASEAN could do, and Cambodia was well aware of ASEAN limit in conflict settlement due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms, that is why it unilaterally took the case to the UNSC, International Court of Justice (ICJ) as well as World Heritage Convention (WHC) – international multilateral mechanisms a small state hopes for help in time of crisis like this.

Undoubtedly, Cambodia strongly supports the regional integration process within ASEAN and its dialogue partners but being labelled as a ‘proxy state’ of an external power has not been an accident but a general perception. The 2012 ASEAN fallout and subsequent positions Cambodia has taken on the South China Sea issue have led to a deeper suspicion over its commitment to the grouping’s centrality and unity. Denying this fact helps nothing but increases distrust, making division among ASEAN member states even clearer.

As China has been deeply integrated with Southeast Asia politically and economically, no country in the region tends to reject China’s influence exclusively, but the degree to which China exercises its influence over Southeast Asian nations varies from one another. As a rising power contiguous with Southeast Asia, China wants respect for its global status but should not dominate the region exclusively. Undeniably, Cambodia is in the depth of Beijing’s regional sphere of influence, affecting its foreign policy manoeuvre in global politics. Moreover, being too close to and dependent only on China, Cambodia makes itself vulnerable because countries in the region do not want Cambodia to become China's satellite state. More importantly, other Great Powers like the US would not want to see that as well. 

Oftentimes, Cambodian leadership denies being a client state of China and insists that Cambodia follows a 'permanence neutrality' foreign policy. Although it is reasonable for Cambodia's dependence on Beijing (regime or personal survival), the perception is very important. To change the negative perception, Cambodia needs to take a step backwards from the present degree of alignment it has with its northern neighbour and looks for ways to diversify its relations with other major powers in reducing the chance of forcefully taking a clear side in great power competitions. Cambodia’s national interest should be aligned with regional interest so that it can restore the trust of its ASEAN fellows as well as demonstrate its responsibilities as a member of ASEAN. Strengthening ASEAN centrality must be Cambodia’s top priority, especially in this time of intense geopolitical contestations between great powers.

Interestingly, Cambodia will be a chair of ASEAN next year amid Sino-US rivalry and the rise of Indo-Pacific geopolitics, the Sout China Sea issue, Myanmar violent conflict and the ongoing pandemic. Observers and commentators have suggested what Cambodia should do and what it should not do to enhance and restore its international image by not repeating the 2012 fallout.

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