Welcome back to Anakut!
In today’s episode, Thina and I are getting geopolitical. That’s because we’re talking about Cambodia and ASEAN, the bloc of Southeast Asian Nations made to pull together its 10 member states into a more cohesive partnership. As background, the bloc was founded in 1967 and, after decades of steady expansion, in 1999 accepted Cambodia for membership.
That might sound like a dry set-up for an episode, but I promise you that this one is anything but. Let me explain a bit further before introducing our guests.
Next year, Cambodia will take the annually rotating position of ASEAN chair, accepting the baton from current chair-state Brunei. Now, it’s a big responsibility to lead the bloc. The chair is expected not only to help oversee the more day-to-day details of ASEAN’s functions but also – and maybe most importantly – to help guide its member-state representatives to reach unanimous agreements on issues taken up by the bloc. That can include a lot of behind-the-scenes action on some very sensitive matters, such as in formulating an ASEAN response to the February 1 coup in Myanmar or in pulling together a united, Southeast Asian front in the long-running South China Sea (SCS) dispute.
But 2022 won’t be the first time Cambodia has held the rotating position of ASEAN chair, and its history in that role has not been without some drama. The Kingdom held the chairship in 2002 and again in 2012. That second turn included a tense moment in bloc history when, for the very first time since its inception, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement. As bloc chair, Cambodia was seen as responsible for this failure, especially as its representatives had moved to block criticism of Chinese expansionism in the SCS.
Bilahari suggested ASEAN might need to consider ejecting Cambodia and Laos to protect the cohesion of the bloc, pointing to their political proximity to China as a key factor
It remains to be seen what 2022 will hold for Cambodia’s renewed chairship. To help us better understand what’s at stake, we invited Pou Sothirak, who is the former Cambodian ambassador to Japan and is now head of the policy group Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. We also had on Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat who previously served as that country’s Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, as well as its ambassador to the UN and Russia. Last year, while speaking on a public forum, Bilahari suggested ASEAN might need to consider ejecting Cambodia and Laos to protect the cohesion of the bloc, pointing to their political proximity to China as a key factor. As you might imagine, this caused quite a stir in Cambodia and prompted some official backlash.
Such is the life of a longtime foreign policy head. Both Bilahari and Sothirak made their careers in the arena of international relations and, in this episode, you’ll hear them delve into the history of Cambodia in ASEAN, sparring at times over how exactly things went down in 2012, and lay out what might be in store for next year. This is an informative, lively episode and I think you’re really going to like it – scroll up and hit that play button to get started.