Cambodia hosted the 40th and 41st ASEAN summits in Phnom Penh this week, marking ASEANs 55th anniversary.
The last time Cambodia held the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012, ASEAN was divided because Cambodia, despite being the chair, prevented a consensus on the ASEAN position on the South China Sea, which was critical of China at the time. There was no joint communique. However, in 2022, Cambodia has been diligent and conducted its chairmanship with relatively less controversy.
This is important because Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has thrice hosted the chairmanship (2002 before 2012 ) and this will probably be his last ASEAN chairmanship. Thus, Cambodia wanted it done well, without controversy and rancour.
The ASEAN Summit is the group’s apex policy-making moment and brings together heads of the 10 ASEAN member states. Customarily, ASEAN summits are held twice a year, in August and November lead annually by member state. Since the pandemic, the summits have beenoften combined, with some leaders’ meetings are held in between.
Cambodia took over from Brunei whose theme as ASEAN chair was ‘We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper’. Cambodia’s theme is ASEAN A.C.T: Addressing Challenges Together.
Perhaps recalling the cleavages caused by Cambodia a decade ago, the current theme emphasised togetherness of ASEAN as a community, and a collective endeavour to address regional challenges through an action-oriented approach to ASEAN, while maintaining the solidarity and harmony of ASEAN as a family.
ASEAN is facing three major issues presently. The first is its own unity and centrality. To be taken seriously by its partners, ASEAN needs to take itself seriously. Over recent years Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the threat perceptions of ASEAN partners, especially the Quad, has led to a contentious region. ASEAN has not managed this despite having several ASEAN-centric bodies that can help. It’s inability to promote confidence-building in the region brings its centrality into question. It issued a joint statement on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in 2002! This is how long ASEAN has struggled with China over a resolution of the SCS.
Nor is ASEAN unified on current issues like Myanmar or with China and Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. China remains ASEANs biggest economic partner, yet seven ASEAN countries joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, since March 2022.
The second major issue is Myanmar. Cambodia inherited the Indonesia-led Five Point Consensus (FPC) arrived at during the Brunei chairmanship in 2021. The Myanmar Tatmadaw leadership was a party to that, but played truant to its commitments. Cambodia tried but could neither engage the democratic forces in Mynamar nor persuade the Tatmadaw to abide by the FPC.
Cambodian efforts to bring back Myanmar to ASEAN summits was resisted by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. ASEAN only accepts non-political representation from Myanmar, which is not forthcoming. Myanmar remains absent at the Summit, putting Cambodian credibility at risk.
Myanmar is the touchstone through which others see ASEAN’s efficacy and determination. It is now the most serious internal issue of ASEAN concerning a member state. There is a hint that if Myanmar remains noncompliant it could be further ostracised.
The third issue which has cleaved ASEAN is the Ukraine crisis. Internally, ASEAN has no common position; it is concerned by the fallout particularly on energy and food prices. The leadership on this was taken by Indonesia as the chair of the G 20 rather than Cambodia.
The division between the G7 countries and Australia who are among ASEAN’s partners, and Russia and China, are disruptive. ASEAN countries, including Cambodia adopted varied positions in the UN, voting in a scattered manner without coherence as a group. Zelensky was virtually invited by Cambodia but lack of ASEAN consensus ended that initiative. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba signed the “Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia” on 10 November. He met with Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN. ASEAN by nature, abhors big power rivalry and believes itself to be a confidence-building bridge. But, global and regional events are overwhelming ASEAN and it lost the opportunity to show unity and continuing relevance. 
In other business, the Summit decided to finally admit Timor-Leste as its 11th member. It will immediately be an observer to fulfil further milestones for its membership.This is the first expansion since 1999. It also had elaborate statements on connectivity which ASEAN aspires to fulfil.
The desire of ASEAN to remain relevant to the Indo-Pacific emerges through another statement where it seeks to have its aims of the Asean Outlook in the Indo-Pacific pursued in all ASEAN=centric bodies. On this, as in several documents with partners, there are contradictions: ASEAN emphasised the UN Convention of the Law on the Sea UNCLOS – but the UNCLOS opposer China, also reiterated its adherence to it!
Such are the realities ASEAN deals with, where one thing is said and what is done is often the opposite.
Gurjit Singh was India’s ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN and the African Union.
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