How Hun Sen’s ‘cowboy diplomacy’ risks returning Asean to crisis and division

February 4, 2022 GMT

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme”, the great writer Mark Twain is credited as saying. In many ways, the same can be said about this year’s Asean chair, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A decade ago, the strongman plunged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into an unprecedented crisis after seeking to impose his agenda at the expense of the regional body’s ability to shape and manage regional challenges, namely the South China Sea disputes. The upshot was Asean’s failure to even issue a joint communique after a meeting for the first time in its history.

True to form, Hun Sen kicked off his rotational chairmanship of the regional body with characteristic “cowboy diplomacy” by unilaterally lifting Asean’s partial diplomatic sanction s against Myanmar’s junta. The move provoked outrage among core Asean states, leading to the postponement of the regional body’s first foreign ministers meeting this year.

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While there are signs of a potential thaw within Asean, Hun Sen is widely expected to maximise his chairmanship privileges to shape the grouping’s stance on high-stakes issues from Myanmar to the South China Sea. Crucially, his chairmanship is expected to echo China’s strategic preference at the expense of the United States and its regional allies.

Asean is a ubiquitous element in Indo-Pacific affairs, yet few truly appreciate its complex dynamic of decision-making. In reality, the regional body is far from a monolithic organisation, having had its moments of glory as well infamy throughout the years.

When the regional body was led by forceful statesmen such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, it played a crucial role in stabilising post-conflict Cambodia and post-independence East Timor throughout the 1990s.

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In more recent years, however, Asean has struggled to assert its centrality on a whole host of regional challenges, particularly during the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Throughout its half a century of existence, Asean’s overall performance has been shaped by three key elements.

First, it is known for its emphasis on consensus and consultation as the twin pillars of its decision-making process, thus its preference for diplomatic moderation.

Less well-known is its successful deployment of majority-based decision-making ” known as the “Asean minus X” formula ” to negotiate high-stakes agreements, including a regional free trade area.

But the third crucial element is the power of the rotationally designated Asean chair, which is held by the respective leader of each member state every year. The Asean chair has the prerogative to shape the agenda and priorities of the regional body for a full year while also enjoying the power to issue a unilateral chairman’s statement when disagreement emerges over contentious issues.

The last time Hun Sen was Asean’s chairman, he made the most out of these special powers. To please China, which offered large-scale investments just months into Cambodia’s chairmanship in 2012, he tried to block the discussion of the South China Sea disputes within Asean.

The upshot was a massive diplomatic crisis. Open spats emerged between the Cambodian and Philippine leaders, and Indonesia made desperate diplomatic interventions to prevent Asean’s disintegration.

Given this tempestuous background, Hun Sen’s cowboy diplomacy shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s unlikely that he will fully replicate his destabilising behaviour from a decade ago, but his chairmanship will remain contentious for three reasons.

To begin with, Cambodia’s relationship with superpowers has undergone a radical shift in the past decade. Unlike most Asean nations, which have maintained balanced relations with the major powers, Hun Sen has steadily tilted towards Cambodia’s ” ironclad brother ” China while overseeing a virtual collapse in relations with Washington.

Beijing has become a vital source of investment, most dramatically in places such as Sihanoukville. It is also a defence partner of Cambodia, which could soon become the first regional state to host Chinese naval facilities.

In contrast, Washington has criticised Hun Sen’s human rights record, frozen military-to-military ties and imposed an arms embargo. Thanks to his growing dependence on China, Hun Sen is expected to largely hew to Beijing’s preference when it comes to crises in Southeast Asia.

This brings us to the second element, namely his stance on Myanmar. Both Hun Sen and China are strong supporters of engagement with Myanmar. Similar to Beijing, the Cambodian leader believes in the primacy of restoring order, even at the cost of sidelining the Asean-led “Five Point Consensus”, which calls for swift reinstitution of democratic institutions in Myanmar as part of a broader road map to peace.

This has placed Hun Sen on a collision course with core Asean states such as Singapore and Malaysia, which support the partial diplomatic isolation of Myanmar, as well as the US, which has imposed sanctions on top junta officials.

Finally, Hun Sen is expected to reflect China’s preference in dealing with the South China Sea disputes, though the Cambodian foreign ministry has emphasised the importance of international law as a basis to manage regional maritime disputes.

But Hun Sen has repeatedly opposed the Philippines’ arbitration case against China. He has insisted on the need for the disputes to be confined to “only countries concerned” since “Asean is not able to work on behalf of those countries concerned”. As such, he is likely to downplay any maritime disputes and drag his feet on negotiations over the Asean-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Overall, Hun Sen’s cowboy diplomacy echoes his prior stint as Asean chairman. Whether this triggers further crisis or inspires greater unity among core Southeast Asian states, which prefer a more robust regional stance on Myanmar and the South China Sea, remains to be seen.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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