“ASEAN Must Unite to Keep the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit on Track” by Tang Siew Mun

2018/17, 1 March 2018

The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit scheduled from 17-18 March 2018 in Sydney is off to a rocky start, and may come off the rails if the Cambodian Prime Minister carries through his threat to withdraw from this important event.

The Australian reported on Mr Hun Sen’s speech in Phnom Penh, where he proclaimed that “if there is no Hun Sen, there will be no ASEAN.” He hinted that that he may skip the Special Summit – “just give the reason that in 2018 (he) cannot go abroad because (he is) busy with the election … this means that Australia won’t be able to hold the meeting.” Another report by Singapore’s Straits Times quoted the Cambodian premier as saying that he could “block the release of any statement between ASEAN and Australia.” This implies an unwelcome flashback to 2012, when Cambodia exercised its veto to block the release of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) joint communique during its ASEAN chairmanship.

Cancelling the Special Summit would cast a shadow on ASEAN’s blossoming bilateral ties with Australia. The spotlight will again be on ASEAN’s disunity and the susceptibility of the regional organisation being literally held hostage by one or a few member states. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s latest move sets a perilous precedent for ASEAN.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s outburst was in response to the perceived likelihood of Australia’s interference in Cambodia’s general elections scheduled for 29 July 2018. In linking its domestic issue to ASEAN’s external affairs, Cambodia has infringed ASEAN’s cardinal rule of non-interference. This rule is enshrined in the ASEAN Charter which spells out the duty of all member states to uphold the non-interference principle.
The non-interference principle was meant to “keep the peace” among the member states by compartmentalising domestic issues from being politicised at the regional level. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threat to derail the Special Summit effectively internationalises a “domestic issue”, with Cambodia’s individual disagreement with Australia possibly adversely impacting the interest of ASEAN as a regional organisation.

While it is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s prerogative to skip the Special Summit, for whatever reason, it is another matter if Cambodia is unrepresented at the Sydney meeting. By showing its displeasure with Australia, Cambodia is in fact turning its back on ASEAN and its important dialogue partner, Australia. Coupled with the 2012 AMM fiasco when Cambodia single-handedly caused ASEAN to suffer great indignity by highlighting its disunity, Cambodia’s commitment to regional cooperation and ASEAN unity is now certainly in question.

Singapore, as the ASEAN Chair, now has the unenviable task to convince Cambodia to commit to the Special Summit and reach a mutually acceptable modus vivendi between Cambodia and Australia. However, ASEAN would have to do some serious soul-searching if Cambodia is adamant in following through its proclaimed position. It would be a setback if ASEAN allowed itself to be held hostage as doing so would invite similar future actions.

The Special Summit proceeding as planned would send a strong and timely reminder to all ASEAN member states that membership in the regional organisation entails a sense of commitment to the regional good. The ball is in Cambodia’s court.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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