Is Cambodia the weakest link in ASEAN chain?

The inability of Cambodia and Laos to apply individual agency on regional matters while supporting China’s larger interests have caused concerns in the grouping 

Published: 04th November 2020 07:43 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th November 2020 08:02 AM   |  A+A-

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Last week, the Southeast Asian region saw an uproar due to intra-ASEAN tensions, between Cambodia and Singapore. The trigger for this was an event hosted by the region’s leading think tank, the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)-Yusof Ishak Institute, which held the 35th ASEAN Roundtable on post-Covid challenges for the countries there.

During the panel discussion, a participant remarked on the possibility of having to cut both Cambodia and Laos from the group, to salvage ASEAN regionalism. The inability of the two states to apply individual agency on regional matters while supporting China’s larger interests was a key factor for this comment. What followed were publications in digital and social media with an exchange of views from Cambodia and Singapore.

While the matter settled in a few days, the role of Cambodia’s integration into ASEAN is becoming more complex, making it imperative to analyse its role in regional stability, or the lack thereof. 
At the height of the Cambodian conflict in the 1980s, ASEAN played a key role in ensuring that the external power rivalries that dominated the Cold War did not completely undermine the core interests of Cambodia’s sovereignty.

ASEAN’s position reiterated the illegality of Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia, asserting the rights of all political factions within the country and also provided diplomatic outreach to help negotiate a peace process. Critical to this was a dual strategy—first, Cambodia’s territoriality and sovereignty must be preserved; second, as a grouping, the position of ASEAN was to back the ‘front state’ that would face the immediate repercussions of the conflict. So while individual ASEAN countries had different views and threat perceptions, the ‘front state’ was Thailand and its own security prerogatives were considered to be ‘binding’ upon the group. 

With the inclusion of new members in the 1990s, ASEAN broadened its security perspectives. Cambodia, as early as 1992, wanted to join the grouping but owing to differences between its leaders Hun Sen and Norodom Sihanouk, the move did not materialise. For Cambodia, at this point, the possibility of ASEAN membership offered an opportunity to increase its much-needed international leverage, and in 1995, it received observer status in the group.

However, Cambodia’s political transition in 1997 was not looking optimistic. Increasingly, Prime Minister Hun Sen was pushing the remaining political factions to a corner and asserting greater political control over Cambodia, negating the UN-mandated peace process. These internal political dynamics were further complicated after the 1997 coup d’etat in which Hun Sen ousted his co-prime minister Norodom Ranariddh, bringing the country back to the brink of civil war.

At this point, the concerns of a fragmented Cambodian state weighed heavily on the region’s conscience, giving way to two factors—first, ASEAN postponed Cambodia’s entry till 1999; second, China had begun to moderately increase its relations with Cambodia from 1996 onwards. Two clearly recognisable shifts took place: Cambodia ended its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1996 and increasingly, the Cambodian Chinese ethnic groups began to receive prominence within the political and economic spaces. 

As China increased its regional and global footprint, its need to access unlimited natural resources compelled the growth of a special relationship with Cambodia. Three factors have furthered relations between the two—the economic growth in East Asia has been stupendous; China’s trade liberalisation has paid off with huge investments coming into the country prior to the pandemic and increasingly, Beijing has invested into other countries of the region, with Cambodia getting the direct benefits of this economic growth.

Most importantly, for Hun Sen who continues to be at the helm of political affairs, all this comes with no conditionalities to improve political freedom or respect human rights and opposition voices.  The evidence of this shift was clearly visible in the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh. Cambodia as chair of the group for that year opposed the passing of a joint communiqué that was critical of China’s role in the South China Sea, especially as both Vietnam and Philippines were impacted by the Chinese assertions. As the ‘front states’ in the South China Sea conflict, the positions of these countries were not honoured in the time-tested manner in which ASEAN functioned.

This led to a flurry of backdoor diplomatic initiatives in the region to push ahead a consensus for the resolution of the South China Sea  issue and the signing of the Code of Conduct through the ASEAN framework, which still remains to be finalised. Last month, reports that Cambodia’s largest naval facility, the Ream Naval base built with the assistance of the US, was demolished in favour of a 30-year-lease on this facility with China caused regional concerns.

Located in the Gulf of Thailand, the acquisition would give China a direct entry into the South China Sea. Cambodia’s government refuted the reports on the grounds that the Constitution forbids the sale of land to any foreign entity. However, a lease is very different and could well be the leverage that China seeks to exploit. In 1997, Hun Sen remarked that staying out of ASEAN would “not be the death of Cambodia”. Today, if Cambodia decides not to choose ASEAN, that may well be the case. 

Shankari Sundararaman
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU,  New Delhi (


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