Recently the issues of the South China Sea and Asean unity have become interchangeable with Cambodia in a negative way and some media sensationally wrote “Cambodia is unbelievable,” “Cambodia is Asean’s maverick,” “Cambodia is weakest link of Asean unity,” “Asean’s liability,” etc.
The level reached its highest when a “theory to expel Cambodia” from Asean surfaced. A controversial Singaporean ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, even voiced this theory publicly on his Facebook page, a blunt and unprecedented verbal attack from an official of an Asean member state against another, defying diplomatic conduct. A known Australian expert on Vietnam studies, Carl Thayer, also mentioned the same theory, interestingly from Ho Chi Minh City. Tuyêt Với đổng chí (Bravo, Comrade Thayer).
Is Cambodia a peace blocker or peace saver?
It took the Phnom Penh government more than 10 years to convince the world in the 1980s that the Khmer Rouge was in fact a genocidal regime when the world was fighting against communism and an economic embargo was imposed on Cambodia. When Collin Powell explained to the world about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002, the world did believe him because he provided all the “undeniable” hard proof of satellite photos and we all found ourselves regretting our tacit acknowledgement of this war 10 years later, which seems to see no ending.
The so-called international momentum is not always right. But the pressure to go along the stream is too strong for any country to resist. Some suggested that China’s $600 million strengthened Cambodia’s stance.
The timing of that provision of assistance might be a bit problematic and suggests a linkage, but to look at the exact amount, $200 million a year is not something ridiculously big considering that Cambodia needs roughly $1 billion a year to develop its infrastructure in its endeavor to bridge the development gap with older Asean members.
Of course, it is nothing compared to the cost of buying a THHAD anti-missile system, which cost South Korea $1.25 billion to deploy. Assistance development during peace time is much better than billion dollar arms sale in war. Or do we prefer the billion dollar profits?
Indeed, it is much easier to follow the majority, stay quiet or embrace “convenient flexibility” or the “art of diplomacy,” but Cambodia chose the difficult path. Cambodia knows too well that war is too easy to start but never easy to end. It is of particular notice that the latest armed border conflicts in Asean actually happened in Cambodia and it was less than 10 years ago. Our territorial survival was tested several times and Cambodia should not be lectured about the importance of peace and stability.
The situation at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting was already out of control. An account by Kyodo News reported that “the wording, such as the mentioning of a recent court arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines in particular, and the larger picture of the South China Sea issue has made Asean split in their political points of view, and barbs were traded between stakeholders, especially the Philippines and China.”
Amid such a situation, Cambodia stood firm on our position, even knowing that we have to face the monumental loss of reputation to avoid escalatory tension so that both sides could create an environment conducive for talks and give peace a chance by fighting on the table instead of fighting with missiles and aircraft carriers. Cambodia chose peace over short-term loss of trust and we believe that this peace can only be made through talks.
Is Cambodia China’s puppet?
Recently Singapore was accused of being too pro-US against China. Responding to such an accusation, Singapore’s ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Stanley Loh, stated that “Singapore is a good friend of both the US and China…Singapore fully agrees with what the leaders of both the US and China have said – that the Asia Pacific is big enough to accommodate both powers. We do not see a growing Chinese role in the region as being at the expense of US contributions to regional stability, security and prosperity. As recently articulated by President Xi Jinping, the US and China should ‘cultivate common circles of friends’ and Singapore is part of this common circle of friendship.”
This response has the same rationale for Cambodia, when we are being accused of being pro-China. However, Singapore is much more fortunate because it never became a superpower war platform. Cambodia was the Cold War platform or proxy war of superpowers for 30 years and we know too well the abyss of war and instability that we need to stop the tide from further escalation.
The idea is too simple-minded. Cambodian scholar Cheunboran Chanborey argued: “Consensus has been the backbone of Asean unity. Given Southeast Asian diversity, politically, economically and culturally, any suggestion on the abandonment of consensus is both disastrous and unpractical. If it happens, it would disintegrate Asean in the near future. However, it’s unpractical in the first place. Countries like Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and even Singapore and Brunei, will definitely back down on the initiative because they harbor a legitimate concern that other Asean members would use Asean to their advantage or in a worst case scenario to interfere into their domestic affairs.”
He added: “Expelling Cambodia is a ridiculous idea. The Asean Charter does not mention any criteria on admitting new members and expelling members. It was not the intention of the drafters of the Charter to turn Asean to be a supranational body and to allow some members to impose their will on others. If Cambodia is out, Asean’s days will be definitely numbered as Laos and Myanmar will be on increasingly hot Asean seats. They will eventually have to exit too when they find that toothless Asean cannot meet their security and economic needs. So will Laos and Myanmar or even Vietnam join a front to expel Cambodia knowing that they would be next targets?”
The first thing is, we need to defuse tension to create an environment conducive for talks or joint cooperation between the parties directly involved. Like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said, we need a “soft-landing” for everyone. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also shared this view, saying: “Countries that lay territorial claims must display the political will to alleviate conflict at every opportunity and on every stage, in order to cooperate in considering the possibility of alleviating the problem. The crux of the matter is that a regional maritime-territory issue should not become a game of win-lose.”
The next step, which is the most important part, is to make China and the US talk more. Like it or not, we need to admit that Asean is now caught in the new Cold War between China and the US. At the latest Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting, it was clear that there are four countries which are favoring China, while the other six side with the US.
But there is little that Asean can do other than creating a space for China and the US to talk more. As a CSIS scholar, Phuong Nguyen rightly pointed out: “Most countries in Southeast Asia know, by instinct, that they should not choose one side over the other. But as an organization seeking to give its members a voice in an international arena made up of larger powers, Asean does not have the answer to that question. More to the point, it is difficult – if not near impossible – for Asean to determine that on its own. It is instead the state of US-China relations, and how each power conducts itself in the region, that will determine how much strategic room Asean has to operate.”
A Peace Blocker or Peace Saver?