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China looms large over Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship

This expert Q&A first appeared on Asia Times’ Southeast Asia Insider weekly newsletter. If you are not a subscriber, please sign up here.

In the aftermath of a precedent-setting decision to exclude Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in October, the regional organization finds itself at a crossroads, with its consensus-based process under strain as one of its ten members descents into civil war and pariah status.
 
Events in Myanmar have put the bloc’s credibility on the line, and critics have pointed to Brunei, which has held ASEAN’s annual rotating chairmanship this year, for failing to act decisively in its response to the political crisis. In what is likely to be his last tenure as ASEAN’s chair, Cambodia’s premier Hun Sen will helm the regional grouping in 2022.
 
Amid reports of Chinese lobbying for Min Aung Hlaing’s inclusion at next week’s ASEAN-China summit and stiff resistance on the part of regional countries, questions are rising as to how Phnom Penh’s close ties to Beijing could impact its handling of the Myanmar debacle as ASEAN’s chair, as well as other geopolitical challenges confronting the region.
 
Asia Times’ correspondent and Southeast Asia Insider editor Nile Bowie recently interviewed Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an esteemed Thai political scientist and professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, on what to expect from Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN for a soon-to-published story. Here are excerpts from their discussion.
 
Is there any reason to believe Cambodia will succeed where Brunei has so far failed in spearheading an ASEAN-led solution to Myanmar?
 
Brunei’s performance was barely par for the chairmanship. It managed to have a meeting and come up with a five-point consensus. But after that, Brunei was not able to put any kind of significant pressure on the State Administration Council (SAC) to come to the table. Min Aung Hlaing basically took ASEAN for a ride, and Brunei really did not have an answer for it.

At the latest summit, ASEAN’s hand was forced, which meant that it had to make a call on Myanmar. I see ASEAN’s exclusion of Min Aung Hlaing from the summit as a concession from a position of weakness. I don’t see that as an ASEAN victory at all.



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