ASEAN’s renewed centrality

March 14, 2018

ASEAN’s renewed centrality

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

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US President Trump fired the first shots in what could become a global trade war this week with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on imports of steel and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium. The action, taken under the national security provisions of US trade law (Section 232), risks provoking tit-for-tat retaliation by trading partners who, unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, aren’t able to negotiate exemption from its impact, and corrosion of the WTO rules-based trading system.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Tech Hun Sen

The White House announcement throws the international trade rulebook out the window. If the Trump administration’s imposition of these tariffs on a flimsy national security pretext does not outright flout the rules of the WTO, then it at least flouts its widely shared norms.

The response from the European Commission was to ‘do the same stupid things to respond to stupid things’ — promising retaliatory tariffs on a range of US exports into Europe, from Harley-Davidson motor bikes to bourbon whiskey. The tariff imposts also launched a process in which trading partners like Australia successfully begged exemption on various grounds both sound and spurious, all of which are nonetheless in clear violation of the understanding that trade will be conducted under internationally agreed rules, not ad hoc bilateral deals.

That’s the beginning of the rot; it may be a short-term tactical victory for countries like Australia, but it is certainly not effective strategic play.

What happens now?

US commentators reckon that a challenge of the Trump tariffs before a WTO dispute panel is a no-win game. If the European Union takes the United States to the WTO (as it has promised to do) and loses under Article XXI, which allows trade restrictions on national security grounds, the ruling will open countries to restrict imports however they choose on ‘national security grounds’. If the United States loses, it will surely reject the ruling, rendering the WTO dispute process effectively dead.

The strategic objective is to keep the WTO system alive in the face of this potentially mortal threat. The United States is playing itself out of the system. Learning to live without the United States as a rules- and norms-enforcer won’t be easy, but it is the only response that will protect the system and avoid the large-scale economic cost and dangerous political consequences of an escalating trade war.

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The strategic response to the Trump trade threat is more important to Asia than to any other major centre of international trade. Asia’s prosperity and political stability depends critically on its integration into the global economy through the rules-based trading system. The global trading system has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, Asia’s economic prosperity and its political security.

China, in particular, is in Trump’s cross hairs as ‘the cause of US trade deficits because of its violation of trade rules’. But China is also a crucial stakeholder in the rules-based system through its largely faithful observance of the protocols of its accession to the WTO in 2001 and the huge trade in Asia and around the world that has been built on that.

Locking in China’s entrenchment to the WTO system — and resisting the temptation to take retaliatory actions in the face of Mr Trump’s trade antics — is thus a major element in the system’s defence.

As China and the United States stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to ASEAN, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia’s present predicament.

ASEAN centrality has been an organising platform for Asian economic policy cooperation over the past half century, as explained in the issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly ‘ASEAN Matters‘ released today.

The retreat of the United States from leading the global order and the reversal of its pivot to Asia; the rise of China with its aggressive stance on the South China Sea and its infrastructure development ‘carrot’ in the Belt and Road Initiative; a putative ‘Quad’ configuration of Indo-Pacific power around the US, India, Japan and Australia; and the hot spot in North Korea all present challenges to ASEAN’s central role in the region.

ASEAN leadership in the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia renews its centrality in Asia’s response to the present uncertainties.

RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It is a coalition of countries with the economic weight to deliver a powerful message to the world. Without movement in ASEAN, RCEP is unable to go anywhere. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States (TPP-11) in Chile last week was a start in defence of the global trading system. But the TPP-11 is not systemically important enough to make the difference. RCEP is.

The threat to security in our region is now much more about the dangers to the multilateral trading system than anything else, despite the still unfinished business on the Korean peninsula.

The Australia–ASEAN summit next weekend is a singularly important opportunity for setting out joint interests on the economic dimensions of regional security and ASEAN’s role in achieving them. ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives. A declaration from the Sydney summit that commits to elevating the momentum in RCEP will help cement a broader coalition of Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea and India, to holding firm on the international trading system. It will also ensure ASEAN’s continuing centrality in economic cooperation across the region.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

The latest edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘ASEAN matters’, is available to read here.

Update: Cambodia in ASEAN

March 7, 2018

 Update: Cambodia in ASEAN

The article below below should be read in conjunction with:

Image result for cambodia kingdom of wonderOne of Cambodia’s star golf courses is Angkor Golf Resort. Here, its the heritage and unique traditions that make is stand out from the crowd …


Cambodia  is allergic to foreign interference in its internal affairs. The leadership opts for Stability and Development First.  20 years of Peace, Stability and Development bear testimony to the success  of Hun Sen’s Win-Win Policy.  It should not be forgotten that Cambodia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty was violated with impunity during the period of the Cold War.

“The 1970 coup was the genesis of the worst suffering of the Cambodian People” Cambodia has, therefore, learned many lessons from its recent past and will resist any attempt by self-righteous power to impose their values on its people.”

The document from The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Affairs  states:

“The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which was blamed for the failure to bring (total) peace in Cambodia due to the imposition of the (genocidal) Pol Pot regime in the equation,sought to transplant in one swoop a perfect model liberal democracy in a country that never knew this kind. Their Western authors uncompromisingly disregarded the aftermath effect (s) of a lost generation almost entirely deprived of a huge majority of its qualified human resources…They snubbed out the consequences of 12 years of economic and political  embargo and worse they inflicted mercilessly sanctions on the  survivors (the genocide), hindering them  from rebuilding their devastated country. It was up against all these odds that the Cambodian government did their utmost to rebuild the people, and introduced the fundamentals of a liberal democracy system…

“History has proved  that foreign-imposed agenda has never been favorable to Cambodia and on the contrary, it has led to bloodshed and senseless destruction.That cruel reality notwithstanding, some those countries are bent on repeating their past mistakes as they push to provoke regime change albiet in more sophisticated and covert forms.”

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Richard Nixon and Kissinger violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia by massively bombing  the countryside. CIA orchestrated a coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Read My War with The CIA by Norodom Sihanouk.

The article by Abiodun Owolegbon-Raji (below) is but one of many designed to paint a negative image of Cambodia and its people. Over the last two decades, Cambodia has made considerable socio-economic strides in an environment of peace and stability. That is Fact, not Fiction. And the outlook in the years ahead is good.–Din Merican

Cambodia Crackdown Casts a Shadow on ASEAN

By   Abiodun Owolegbon-Raji

Image result for Cambodia --The Miracle on The Mekong

In what has become a conventional trait among ruling parties in nascent democracies, the Cambodian government dissolved the country’s main opposition party on November 16, 2017, for “plotting a coup.” This was the nadir of a systematically coordinated state-sponsored crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) by the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hen Sen has also orchestrated the closure of independent media outlets and restricted NGO activities, moves analysts have described as attempts to consolidate power in the wake of national elections billed for July 2018. To recall, the CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested for treason in a midnight raid in September 2017, and many of the party’s leadership have since fled into exile.

Expectedly, the dissolution was ordered by the Supreme Court of Cambodia in order to lend some tone of legal validity to the sham process. For someone who has been accused of repression, corruption and political violence in his three-decade rule, Hun’s actions come as no surprise.

Needless to say that Dith Munty, the Supreme Court’s President, is one of Hun’s long-term political allies and occupies a seat on the CPP’s highest decision-making body. “It makes a mockery of fair justice to have someone in a leadership position within one political party sit in judgment on the conduct of that party’s main opposition. … There can be no starker example of an inherent conflict of interest,” says Kingsley Abbot, senior international legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists, a rights group.

To many, this comes as no surprise. The Cambodian government has a notorious history of rights abuses and stifling press freedom. In 2015, it took extensive negotiations by unions and pressure from buyers such as H&M to increase the minimum wage of workers in the garment sector to a paltry $140/month (now set to increase to $170 in 2018), despite the sector being the country’s key export earner; most workers hardly earn decent remuneration for their work. Likewise, 2017 saw a consistent crackdown on the media, the culmination of which 19 radio stations were knocked off-air for “violating contracts” they had with the government. By September, Radio Free Asia had to discontinue its operations in Cambodia when the atmosphere became unbearable.

The opposition leader, Kem Sokha, is still in prison and has faced series of interrogations, despite the fact that he has recently refused to respond to questions, citing the illegality of his detention.

Consequently, the crackdown on the opposition has had a ripple effect both regionally and internationally. The US, which Sen has accused of working with the CNRP to coordinate the alleged coup, has promised “concrete steps” against Cambodia. The EU has also said that “the European Union’s development cooperation and trade preferences are reliant on [Cambodia’s] respect for fundamental human rights and democratic principles,” in a statement by its foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

The Chinese, on the other hand, appear to be backing the Cambodian authorities, with China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, stating that his government supports Cambodia’s efforts to “protect political stability.” However, nothing appears to be forthcoming from Cambodia’s immediate regional body, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

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ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization of 10 Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia. Some may argue that ASEAN, a regional bloc with a mandate to promote economic, political, security, military, educational and socio-cultural integration among its members, should not interfere in the crisis. However, a union with a charter built upon principles such as “upholding international law with respect to human rights, social justice and multilateral trade” and “development of friendly external relations and a position with the UN” cannot ignore gross human rights abuses and political repression in its own backyard.

Article 9 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” and article 10 that “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Not only has the Cambodian government trampled upon these tenets, but almost the entire declaration is being violated, including the right of citizens to elect their leaders. The moral ground upon which ASEAN stands to claim that it upholds human rights, therefore, comes into question.

Worthy of note is the fact that in November 2012, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was unanimously adopted by all members at a meeting in Phnom Penh. The declaration is supposed to assert ASEAN nations’ commitment to human rights protection. Though widely criticized, it was a positive development, but ASEAN must show further commitment.

First, the ASEAN declaration should be revised to reflect a full commitment to protecting human rights. Fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of association and the right to be free from enforced disappearance should be included. Also, ambiguous clauses that could be used to undermine human rights, such as “The realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context” (Article 7) and that human rights might be limited to preserve national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, etc., (Article 8) should be removed. This can be made an incontestable condition for continuous membership of ASEAN by member nations.

While some may suggest that the poor living standards and economy in some ASEAN countries should be given top priority, this will simply amount to misconstruing human processes. Guaranteeing the fundamental human rights of citizens is the very basis of economic prosperity. Therefore, the decision not to prioritize human rights protection will not only keep millions of people under repression but also exacerbate these economic problems.

If there is any good time for ASEAN to take constructive steps in the full protection of human rights and democracy, the recent Cambodian crackdown provides a good platform.

*[Updated: January 22, 2018.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

February 8, 2018

The End of Cambodia’s Ersatz Democracy

by Author: Editorial Board, East Asia 

In 2017, the world’s attention turned to Cambodia for all the wrong reasons.

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Phnom Penh City

When Cambodians went to the polls to elect municipal councils in July, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) saw a substantial boost in its support, particularly in the rural areas long considered a stronghold of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The local results were seen to put the CNRP in a competitive position in the national election scheduled for July 2018.


Rather than prompting the government to become more responsive to the concerns of disaffected voters, the 2017 polls became the trigger for a brazen crackdown on the opposition, the press and civil society. The CNRP has been dissolved in a controversial court ruling, and its leader Kem Sokha has been jailed on trumped-up charges of treason. Media outlets such as the respected Cambodia Daily newspaper and independent radio stations have been shut down. The government is intimidating the largest and most vocal NGOs.

As Astrid Norén-Nilsson writes in this week’s lead article (which is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead), the ongoing crackdown marks no less than ‘the endpoint of Cambodia’s era of electoral democracy — an era in which the opposition may have faced uphill struggles but was nonetheless dependably allowed to contest elections’.

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Certainly, Hun Sen’s Cambodia was no poster child for democracy and good governance before 2017. As political scientist Lee Morgenbesser has argued, after Hun Sen’s rise to power in the 1993 election overseen by the United Nations, the country became a textbook case of ‘competitive authoritarianism’. This is a system in which parties and civil society are allowed enough freedom to maintain the appearance of competitive politics, but where political institutions are so rigged that the opposition has no real path to power. In this view, the mistake of the CNRP was to get too popular, to the extent that a national election victory seemed a possibility — a scenario that Hun Sen could not countenance.

The degeneration of a pretend democracy into outright autocracy also marks the failure of decades of investment in Cambodian democracy and good governance by Western governments and international organisations. It is perhaps a small sense of responsibility for the current predicament that gives urgency to questions about what the world can or should do in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown. At present, targeted sanctions seem ‘the only realistic possibility of a somewhat modified course of government action, though [they are] a highly uncertain one’, writes Norén-Nilsson.


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A peaceful and attractive county side in a rapidly developing and stable economy

The note of caution she sounds is appropriate. Cambodia is no economic pariah; rather, millions of Cambodians are beneficiaries of trade with the West. As Heidi Dahles highlights in her review of the Cambodian economy, trade unions representing garment workers have spoken out against Western economic sanctions. Western governments should take such warnings seriously. Any program of sanctions that harms Cambodian export industries would only play into the hands of Hun Sen and his narrative that the West is out to undermine Cambodia. Heavy-handed sanctions not only fail to guarantee changes in the behaviour of the target regime, but can lead to isolation and economic hardship that serves nobody’s interests (the experience of Myanmar under the old military junta is a cautionary tale).

However Western governments respond, there are ultimately larger forces at work aiding the entrenchment of authoritarianism both in Cambodia and elsewhere in the region. Hun Sen’s crackdown takes place in a world where authoritarian leaders are less dependent on the West for their aid and investment needs — and thus have fewer incentives to cultivate support among Western politicians by promising reforms and democracy. As Norén-Nilsson writes, ‘China’s full political and economic support enables Cambodia’s shift to autocracy, which occurs in the context of President Trump’s voluntary handing over of American regional and global leadership to China’.

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Hun Sen and his CPP can expect to win the July 2018 election decisively in a contest compromised by the effective exclusion of the largest opposition party. By closing off avenues for peaceful opposition, Hun Sen has thrown up hazards for Cambodia’s future. As we have learned from the fall of autocrats from Indonesia to Egypt in recent decades, when struck by crises dictatorships can prove surprisingly brittle — and efforts to unseat them typically lead to large-scale violence.

The West will make noises about the illegitimacy of the Prime Minister’s victory, and will likely continue to apply and even extend sanctions. But Hun Sen is here to stay, and the dictates of realpolitik mean that the Western powers will soon revert to pragmatic cooperation with Hun Sen’s regime when necessary.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Also read:

The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective

February 3, 2018

The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective

by Cheunboran Chanborey

Mr. Cheunboran Chanborey is currently a PhD student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. His main areas of his interest include Cambodia’s foreign policy, East Asian security and international relations.

Prior to pursuing a PhD degree, he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Cambodia and taught at the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh. Mr. Chanborey holds an MA in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, in conjunction of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He also holds an MA in Diplomacy and International Studies from the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, Rangsit University (Thailand), as well as a BA in International Relations from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

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Since 2010, the South China Sea has reemerged as one of Asia’s hotspots due to increasing military tensions between China and other claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. Diplomatic stalemate between ASEAN and China as well as within ASEAN further exacerbates the uncertainty. The South China Sea has become what The Economist called a “sea of troubles.”1

Clearly, China is being assertive in the disputed areas. Its massive land reclamation, the establishment of new military landing strips, and the deployment of anti-craft missiles are strong evidence for such a judgment. Moreover, despite the absence of major military clashes, China has been assertive in using Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships, civilian fishing ships as well as mobile oil explorations to assert and defend its maritime territorial claims.

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China’s growing assertiveness resulted in numerous confrontations with ASEAN claimant states. For instance, confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal escalated in 2012. In May 2014, China moved a large oil ring into waters near the Paracels, which Vietnam also claims. This resulted in confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese civilian and military ships. In March 2016, Jakarta-Beijing bilateral relations soured due to alleged encroachments by Chinese fishing boats into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Decoding China’s Assertiveness in the South China Sea

There are many attempts to explain China’s military and diplomatic posture in the South China Sea. Donald Emmerson argues that China’s increasing assertiveness derives from Beijing’s three fears and one megaproject. 2 The three fears include: (1) the repetition of humiliation that China experienced throughout the 19th century by Western powers—Britain, France, and the United States—that arrived in China in ships across the South China Sea, (2) attempts by external powers, the United States in particular, to contain the rise of China to assume its rightful place in the world, and (3) the disaffection of the Chinese over Beijing’s handling of the country’s territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, since becoming China’s new leader in November 2012, President Xi Jinping declared the China Dream as a way to achieve a “rich and powerful country, the revitalization of the nation, and the people’s happiness.”3 The goal is to exert China’s primacy in Asia and the world. To this end, offshore dominance, especially in the South China Sea, may be viewed by Beijing as a requisite step forward toward the goal.

The US Involvement in the South China Sea: Constructive or Divisive?

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Another development that must also be considered while discussing about a more assertive China in the region is the American “pivot to Asia,” which has been seen, at least in the eyes of Chinese strategists, as an attempt by Washington to encircle China.

Controversially, at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared publicly that the United States has a national interest in the freedom of navigation and flights in the South China Sea. Since then, military tension has been unabated, and the Philippines and Vietnam have been more assertive both in their bilateral negotiation with China and in using ASEAN as a framework to deal with China. Arguably, Manila and Hanoi might share the same conviction that time is actually on the Chinese side and that it is the right time to push for more compromise from Beijing given the fact that China is not yet a full-fledged superpower and, more importantly, the United States is actively reengaging in Asia. As a result, the South China Sea has always been a hot agenda item in ASEAN meetings and ASEAN-related meetings since 2010.

Although the United States does not exert any claim, it has interests in the South China Sea, which include, but not limited to: (1) freedom of navigation; (2) commitments to its allies in the region, and (3) attempt to prevent regional hegemony.4 To protect its interests in the region, the United States has strengthened its security cooperation with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. It has also increased joint military exercises with the regional countries and operated maritime patrol aircraft to challenge China’s assertiveness in the disputed area. The US engagement in the South China Sea, in turn, gives ASEAN claimant states leverage in pursuing a firmer stance toward China, which is not supported by ASEAN non-claimant states due to their desire to maintain close ASEAN-China relations. As a result, ASEAN’s division on the issue has been evident.

Hun Sen’s Rebuke Against “Unjust Accusations”

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Inevitably, disagreement within ASEAN on the South China Sea caused a political crisis during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012 as the foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s history. The failure—known in ASEAN circles as the Phnom Penh Fiasco—has allegedly been interpreted as the result of enormous Chinese pressure on Cambodia: Beijing allegedly blocked any mention of the South China Sea in the joint communiqué.5

More recently, the ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June 2016 in Yuxi, China was concluded without a joint press conference by the co-chairs of the meeting—China and Singapore, ASEAN-China Coordinator—due to a lack of agreement on the South China Sea. Following the meeting, it has been reported that, under Beijing’s pressure, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar forced the recall of the ASEAN joint press statement by withdrawing their support on the statement, which was to be released separately from the host, China.

Earlier in April 2016, China has reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos that territorial disputes in the South China Sea were “not an issue between China and ASEAN as whole.” Subsequently, Beijing has been accused of dividing ASEAN to preempt any ASEAN consensus on the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the Philippines’s South China Sea case against China just issued on July 12, 2016.

In defending his country’s position, Prime Minister Hun Sen recently remarked that “Cambodia has again and again become a victim of the South China Sea issue because of unjust accusations.”6 He added that the Phnom Penh Fiasco took place not because of Cambodia. The reason was, as he said, “They bullied Cambodia,” referring to pressure from two ASEAN claimant states—the Philippines and Vietnam—to incorporate their strong wordings in the joint communiqué. He also blamed some ASEAN claimant states for “trying to drag Cambodia into the dispute,” saying that “They have a dispute, but they get Cambodia to be responsible.”

Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is aimed at: (1) continuing implementing the declaration of conduct (DOC); (2) urging ASEAN and China to make the utmost effort to finalize the code of conduct (COC); and (3) encouraging countries concerned to discuss and resolve their issue because ASEAN is not a court. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that, “ASEAN cannot measure land for them…the South China Sea is not an issue between ASEAN and China.”

With regard to the PCA’s verdict, Prime Minister Hun Sen has revealed a clear position that Cambodia would “not make any joint declaration to support the decision of the court.” The Philippines has gone too far in unilaterally bringing the South China Sea to the court without seriously anticipating the action’s implications on ASEAN and ASEAN-China relations. Hun Sen made it clear that, “It is the Philippines who sues China. Let the Philippines deal with it. Why call for ASEAN’s support?”

Prime Minister Hun Sen also called upon major powers outside the region to refrain from “pouring the oil into flame and try to keep detente in relations on the South China Sea.” He referred to “one of the major powers outside the region”—widely taken to be the United States—has lobbied ASEAN members to jointly support the PCA’s ruling.

Cambodia Between ASEAN and China

Clearly, the South China Sea constitutes today’s most difficult foreign policy dilemma for Cambodia since ASEAN and China are both crucially important for the kingdom’s security and economic development. Since becoming an ASEAN member in 1999, Phnom Penh has attached a great importance to the integration of Cambodia into the regional grouping. In fact, ASEAN has always been the cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy. Cambodian policymakers were convinced that ASEAN would be a crucial platform through which their country could safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as promote its strategic and economic interests.

Prime Minister Hun Sen reminded again four main factors encouraging Cambodia to join ASEAN. First, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference would help Cambodia, which is sandwiched by its “two giant ASEAN countries—Thailand and Vietnam,” to address its external security challenges. Secondly, a consensus-based ASEAN would ensure that “Whether the country is rich or poor, big or small, every member has one voice equally.” Thirdly, Cambodia would stand to benefit from ASEAN in terms of “economic construction, socio-economic development and connectivity.” Finally, Cambodia would benefit from ASEAN’s “big diplomatic outreach to partners.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recall of reasons for Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN can be understood as an expression of doubt in contrast to his past conviction on the role of the regional organization. First, it seems that Hun Sen’s confidence in ASEAN has gradually faded due to the grouping’s ineffective response to the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict between 2008 and 2011. In response to Cambodia’s urge for help, what ASEAN and its member states did was the encouragement for Phnom Penh and Bangkok to bilaterally resolve the dispute. In fact, the border dispute was never tabled as an agenda of the ASEAN Summits until Prime Minister Hun Sen broke protocol, possibly out of his frustration, and raised the issue at the ASEAN Summit in May 2011.

Second, his statement related to the fact that Cambodia has been bullied by some powerful ASEAN members implies his unease at ASEAN’s inability to enforce the principle of non-interference and equal sovereign rights among its member states.

Last but more importantly, China, not ASEAN, has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and biggest economic benefactor. China is also the biggest provider of military assistance to Cambodia. Noticeably, China’s military assistance increased remarkably at the time when Cambodia badly needed to build up its defence forces during the Cambodia-Thailand border dispute. Moreover, as for policymakers in Phnom Penh, China is not a threat but a protector of Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, ensured on many occasions by Chinese top leaders.

In this context, it is important for regional leaders and policymakers to reflect the reality of Southeast Asia and how to move forward. Firstly, it is not unreasonable to agree with a Cambodian scholar, Chheang Vannarith, who argues that, “If the regional and external countries keep pressuring the non-claimant states like Cambodia to build a united front against China, ASEAN will be disintegrated”.7

Secondly, ASEAN-China relationship is not only about the South China Sea. There are many areas of cooperation that both sides stand to benefit from, including trade, investment, tourism, regional connectivity, and joint efforts in fighting against non-traditional security issues.

Thirdly, it is unpractical to consider ASEAN a dispute-settlement mechanism. It has never fulfilled that role even in disputes between its member states. Like Cambodia and Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines tried to initially resolve territorial disputes through bilateral mechanisms but eventually brought the issue to the International Court of Justice. At its best, what ASEAN can do is to be a dispute-avoidance mechanism.

Lastly, there is a dangerous risk of internationalizing the South China Sea, particularly by dragging in external powers. By so doing, ASEAN will lose its neutrality in its relations with major powers outside the region. Moreover, ASEAN’s members might be drawn into great-power competition, which will eventually put ASEAN’s unity at risk, for ASEAN members have different interests in the South China Sea and see the role of external powers through different lenses.

End notes:

1. See The Economist, “The South China Sea: Sea of Troubles”, 2 May 2015. Available at:

2. See Donald Emmerson, “Why Does China Want to Control the South China Sea”, The Diplomat, 24 May 2016. Available at:

3. See William A. Challahan, “The China Dream and the American Dream”, Economic and Political Studies 1(2014):143-160.

4.See Ronald O’Rourke, “Maritime Territorial and Excusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress”, CRS Report, 31 May 2016. Available at:

5. Kishore Mahbubani, “Beijing in the South China Sea – belligerent or assertive?” Financial Times, 15 March 2016. Available at:

6. See Hun Sen’s Remarks at the Graduation Ceremony of the Royal School of Administration, in Phnom Penh, on 20 June 2016. Available at:

7. Khmer Times, “Hun Sen: Enough on South China Sea”, 29 June 2016. Available at:–enough-on-south–china-sea/


The Enduring Cambodian Political Economy?

January 18, 2018

The Enduring Cambodian Political Economy?

by Heidi Dahles, Griffith University

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Phnom Penh Skyline 2017 – Phnom Penh Is Changing Day By Day

Cranes building Phnom Penh’s rapidly rising skyline give testimony to Cambodia’s enduring economic success as well as to China’s commitment to investing in the Kingdom’s infrastructure. Cambodia has been highly successful in attracting foreign direct investment, creating employment and alleviating poverty for millions. The outstanding performance of its economy has been widely acknowledged: the Asian Development Bank calls Cambodia the ‘new tiger economy’ and the World Bank announced Cambodia’s transition from a low-income to a lower middle-income country. The widely held expectation is that Cambodia will achieve upper middle-income status by 2030 if recent growth rates are sustained.


That said, Cambodia also still holds least developed country status. For this reason, Cambodia is likely to retain the preferential trade agreements and donor payments that the country has enjoyed for decades. Economic prosperity is set to advance — unless politics gets in the way.

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Cambodia’s economic rise starkly contrasts the political chaos that reached a climax in November 2017 with the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party — the country’s only major opposition party — and the detention of its leader, Kem Sokha. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also threatened to close the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, which was founded by the detained opposition leader.

The moves have been widely condemned as marking Cambodia’s shift to a one-party dictatorship, and many Western countries have threatened action. Member states of the European Union announced restrictions on rice imports from Cambodia, while Canada and Australia encouraged Cambodia to reinstate proper democratic processes. Perhaps the strongest response came from the United States, which Hun Sen has accused of supporting the arrested opposition leader’s efforts to conspire against the Cambodian government. In response, the United States immediately cancelled the US$1.8 million in funding it had pledged for the 2018 Cambodian general elections and it announced visa sanctions against Cambodian officials who were ‘undermining democracy’.

Since the 1991 Paris Accords, the United States has spent billions supporting the democratic process in Cambodia in order to restore and preserve peace after two decades of civil war and Khmer Rouge atrocities. Unfortunately, the recent political developments are widely viewed as a collapse of the democratisation process — a view that is shared by international rights organisations such as Global Witness and Human Rights Watch. Further recommended sanctions include asset freezes, travel bans on senior officials, trade restrictions and the suspension of all technical assistance for elections.

The Cambodian government and the ruling party have been rather bemused by Western criticism. The Prime Minister welcomed the cutting of US aid for the elections, pointing out that this would make an end to NGO meddling in Cambodian affairs. After all, Western aid has always been conditional on the government maintaining proper democratic processes and institutions. Alluding to the robust performance of the Cambodian economy, a spokesman of the ruling party dismissed concerns saying: ‘everything is better now than before’.

Will Cambodia’s political fiascos put an end to its economic rise? Cambodian unions fear foreign sanctions will involve a cancellation of preferential tax rates. In a joint statement, the four major unions in the country appealed to foreign embassies and buyers to treat their industries as separate from politics.

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Economic analysts expect the current political instability will have only limited, short-term effects. The West will tighten sanctions if Cambodia continues its crackdowns on democratic institutions such as civil society organisations and independent media outlets. These crackdowns are most likely to intensify in the run up to the 2018 general elections. Foreign investment in Cambodia overall will hardly be affected either way as the overwhelming majority comes from other Asian countries.

As one of China’s most favoured nations, Cambodia not only receives economic investment and aid with ‘no strings attached’ but also receives Beijing’s political approval. China has explicitly expressed its support for the Cambodian government and Hun Sen, who is one of Beijing’s most important allies in Southeast Asia (and in the South China Sea dispute in particular).

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New Roads for Cambodia

Similarly, the Cambodian business community is championing close ties to the government. It views an election victory for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as the most desirable scenario since any other outcome would be detrimental to established business interests.

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His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni

While the political drama is unfolding, Cambodian people go about business as usual and politics does not seem to be the first thing on their minds. The current ‘crisis of democracy’ has been a long time coming and is not alien to the region at large. Authoritarian rule is enduring across Southeast Asia. Arguably, as the United States rapidly loses its role as protector of democracy, the ensuing ‘politics of disorder’ is swiftly becoming the new regional order.

Heidi Dahles is Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Business School, Griffith University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Sanctions won’t stop Cambodia

January 13, 2018

Sanctions won’t stop Cambodia

by Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute

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2017 has been an extraordinary year for Cambodia. Former opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested in September over a treason charge and his Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in November. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party government forced some civil society and media organisations to close down due to failures to meet local laws, which some viewed as a systematic crackdown.

In response to the plummeting democratic institutions in the country, the United States and the European Union condemned the Cambodian People’s Party government and called the moves against the opposition and against civil society a serious threat to democracy.


The Australian and Japanese governments have also raised concerns. Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kazuyuki Nakane ‘expressed concern over the dissolution of the opposition party, which received support from many Cambodian citizens at the previous election’. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop agreed that the development has serious implications for democracy in Cambodia: ‘As a friend of Cambodia, Australia urges the Cambodian government to allow all its citizens to exercise their democratic rights, particularly ahead of the 2018 national election’, she said in a statement.

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Mixed Signals on Cambodia from the US Congress and The White House

US legislators and the EU Parliament have called for sanctions on Cambodia, including asset freezes for high-ranking Cambodian officials. Worse for Cambodia would be the removal of preferential tax-free and quota-free access to US and EU markets for Cambodian-made textile and footwear products under the European Union’s ‘Everything But Arms’ scheme and the United States’ Generalized System of Preferences.

The United States has already imposed visa sanctions on high-ranking Cambodian government officials. The US Department of State announced on 6 December 2017 that it ‘will restrict entry into the United States of those individuals involved in undermining democracy in Cambodia’. The EU Parliament adopted a resolution on 13 December calling for ‘a list of individuals responsible for the dissolution of the opposition and other serious human rights violations in Cambodia with a view to imposing possible visa restrictions and asset freezes on them’.

The United States has promised more concrete measures to force the Cambodian government to reverse steps that ‘backtracked on democracy’, and has called upon Cambodia to have a free and fair election in 2018. Without the meaningful and full participation of the main opposition party, the legitimacy of the government created after the election will be in question. The United States, the European Union, and US allies will likely not recognise the election results.

These harsh measures on Cambodia could be regarded as double standards, as similar cases in the region that were proportionally addressed. The unpopular military coup in Thailand in 2014 illustrated a serious decline in democracy, but Thailand has not faced any sanctions from the West. There are no sanctions to date for serious human rights violations in Myanmar relating to the Rohingya crisis nor are there any on the Philippines over the extra-judicial killing of thousands under Duterte’s war on drug.

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“Sam Rainsy (pic above with Prime Minister Hun Sen) has accelerated his political campaign to gain support from the Cambodian diaspora and the international community. He recently called upon the Cambodian Armed Forces to disrespect orders from their commanders or Hun Sen to use violence against the people. The government regards his campaign as inciting national disorder and instability.”–Vannarith Chheang

In the face of this international pressure, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has encouraged the United States and the European Union to impose sanctions. Speaking to national athletes on 15 December, Hun Sen said, ‘I encourage the European Union and United States to freeze the wealth of Cambodian leaders abroad’. He added that he has no money abroad so any sanctions would not harm him.

Meanwhile former head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy has accelerated his political campaign to gain support from the Cambodian diaspora and the international community. He recently called upon the Cambodian armed forces to disrespect orders from their commanders or Hun Sen to use violence against the people. The government regards his campaign as inciting national disorder and instability.


Cambodian democracy remains young and vulnerable to power conflicts. Although Cambodian society has largely embraced democratic values, the country’s democratic institutions have not been proportionally strengthened — power politics remain at the core of the political playbook. Deep political distrust between opposing political camps has further backtracked democratic development in the country, and there is currently no strong neutral force in place to promote political negotiation and reconciliation.

The international sanctions that the United States and the European Union may impose are unlikely to create favourable conditions for political dialogue while China lends its full support to Hun Sen’s regime. A people’s revolution is highly unlikely given most Cambodians are not interested in regime change through revolution. Cambodia’s political outlook is bleak unless there emerges an effective force or mechanism to encourage or force conflicting parties into dialogue.

Visiting Fellow to Associate Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishank Institute.


Visiting Fellow to Associate Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishank Institute.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.