Most Chinese Malaysians are loyal to China

Cambodia, Laos and their involuntary contribution to a new era in Southeast Asian security cooperation

With Cambodia and Laos as China's loyal allies, Southeast Asia needs a new approach to effective security cooperation. Now a scandal sparked by a retired diplomat from Singapore opens the door to an overdue debate.

Diplomats by nature tend to act in the shadows, even after they retire. Deviation from this norm therefore attracts attention and sometimes even more. This also applied to Singapore's Bilahari Kausikan, who took part in a public digital roundtable event in October. There Kausikan mentioned that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could one day be forced to exclude Cambodia and Laos because of their close ties with the People's Republic of China. In his view, both states are subordinating their loyalty to other ASEAN member states to Chinese interests in the region. Kausikan criticized Cambodia and Laos for their reluctance to answer sensitive issues and called this behavior “passive neutrality”. In a publication based on the webinar, the former diplomat writes that “neutrality does not mean going into hiding and hoping for the best”.

While it is no secret that this perception is shared by several ASEAN member states, his statements struck a nerve in China and Cambodia. Actors from both countries immediately rejected his statements and condemned them sharply. Some observers pointed out that this was the opinion of a private person and was therefore irrelevant. However, this might be a little too innocent. It is not uncommon for governments to communicate meaningful but sensitive political issues through informal channels. And in fact, Kausikan only uttered what diplomats have been suggesting behind closed doors for years.

The undiplomatic reactions are a reminder of how difficult it has often been to work together in Southeast Asia. Created by Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in 1967, the containment of communism was the lowest common denominator that led to the creation of ASEAN. This was enough for a quarter of a century until the 1990s, when Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and finally Cambodia (after Brunei Darussalam 1984) joined the bloc. But not only the end of the communist threat emanating from the Soviet Union fundamentally changed the self-image of ASEAN, but also the challenges that arose from the new, ideology-free, multipolar world (dis) order.

Since then, ASEAN has made every effort to develop a robust common foundation to contain the centrifugal forces inherent in it. While there were and are some common interests, especially in relation to economic cooperation, which led to the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, in many other areas only symbolic politics was pursued. Often times, the ASEAN motto “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” appeared more as a promise than a reality. Today the organization is further away than ever from its 2007 self-proclaimed goal of becoming “an EU-style community”.

It is fair to say that this endeavor to achieve the level of integration of the EU was an illusion from the start. The source of the conflict lies in the widely diverging geostrategic interests of the member states. It is a delusion that important Southeast Asian actors have long ignored this fact, even though it is rooted in centuries-old traditions. In any case, the dream of greater regional integration ended rather abruptly in 2012, when, for the first time in history, an ASEAN summit ended without a joint final communiqué.

That was anything but a trivial matter. At that time, Cambodia was not only the host, but also the cause of this failure. By blocking the communiqué, an ASEAN member state made it clear for the first time that it is prioritizing the political ambitions of an external ally over the essential security interests of its immediate neighbors. This is so important because, with the principle of unanimity, every state has a right of veto. Due to Cambodia's high dependence on - officially unconditional - Chinese development aid, the People's Republic became de facto part of ASEAN. In recent years, Laos has become a second gateway for China to enter the organization thanks to extensive Chinese development aid.

The main driver of China's ambitions lies in its territorial claims in the South China Sea. They overlap with most of the claims of its Southeast Asian neighbors, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, but also Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. It has always been a clear goal of China not to multilateralise this dispute - and according to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index 2020, the Cambodian government adopted the Chinese position. The report states: "In the context of China's extensive aid and influence as a major bilateral partner, Cambodia remains a strong supporter of Chinese interests in international relations." The People's Republic is therefore keeping ASEAN out of the controversy over the South China Sea via Cambodia and Laos. For the rest of the region, the neutrality of the two states is therefore little more than a facade.

But this is only part of the recent developments. Since last year, China's military ambitions in the Gulf of Thailand - northwest of the South China Sea with neighboring countries Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia - have become clear. There is some evidence that China will have exclusive access to part of the Ream naval base on Cambodian territory for 30 years. In addition, there are indications that Dara Sakor International Airport in southern Cambodia could become a Chinese air force base. If these plans are carried out, China would significantly expand its military presence and influence in Southeast Asia. In the context of the country's offensive approach in the South China Sea, this potential move has a significant impact on the security architecture of Southeast Asia.

That could explain why several ASEAN member states want to revive regional governance. With the emergence of an aggressive superpower in the neighborhood, increased security cooperation becomes inevitable. As Bilahari Kausikan has indicated, this will not be possible due to China's close ties with Cambodia and Laos within ASEAN. Due to its internal structures, the organization is largely incapable of such a development. To conclude from this that both countries would have to give up their membership in the regional organization would, however, have serious consequences. In particular, such a radical decision would affect economic integration in the region and cooperation in other, less controversial policy areas. Despite their well-founded security needs, this cannot reflect the interests of the other Southeast Asian states. The states involved are therefore very well advised not to use ASEAN for this step. Instead, stable and binding cooperation could be better achieved through a “coalition of the willing”. Europe is an excellent role model as it separates economic cooperation and political integration and legal harmonization (EU) from military cooperation (NATO). This two-pillar model allows much more flexibility for collaboration and reduces the pressure of negotiating overall packages. Despite the existing patterns of reduced mutual trust between the Southeast Asian nations - at best "strategic trust" - compared to Europe, a much more homogeneous region, there is no indication why a similar alliance with a clearly defensive approach could not be built .

In addition, four years of Trumpism have made it clear that there are increasing isolationist tendencies in American foreign policy. While new President Joe Biden is likely to revert to a more active United States agenda in global affairs, the next four years could be just enough time to develop a collective defense mechanism in Southeast Asia before the pendulum potentially turns back into place turns in a different direction. In any case, a security alliance that does not see the US and its allies as opponents would be a much more attractive partner in solving global security issues than the current constellation with the limited possibilities of the individual states in Southeast Asia.

In the worst foreign policy scenario - a new Cold War with the United States and China as main opponents - deeper security cooperation would become even more important. The motivation for regional cooperation in Southeast Asia would then return to its roots - namely to curb an externally controlled advance. However, the consequences for Southeast Asia would be considerable and a deep rift in the region would be unavoidable. But it doesn't have to come to that. It is up to China whether it wants to cooperate with Southeast Asia or dominate Southeast Asia. Both Cambodia and Laos are sovereign states that should decide independently and free from interference whether they want to support China with an allegedly neutral stance or actively contribute to an effective balance between most of its Southeast Asian neighbors and China.

Kausikan's remarks opened the door to such reflection and discussion. All parties involved are well advised to use them constructively.

Dr. Markus Karbaum is a political scientist and consultant specializing in Cambodian and Southeast Asian politics.

This version is a translation of the original English contribution.