Southeast Asia’s summit season has come and gone with takeaways that concurrently eased geopolitical tensions and underlined risks that could lead to future global conflict. The three major summits—the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Phnom Penh, the G20 in Bali, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Bangkok—also demonstrated that the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 has been practically overcome as in-person meetings are back in full force. Overall, the three hosts came away with mixed highlights.
The Cambodian leadership of the EAS and other ASEAN-related summits was largely successful. As ASEAN chair this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen capitalized on the occasion to burnish his statesman-like stature. The fact that he has shrewdly and systematically destroyed the opposing Cambodia National Rescue Party in recent years helped pave the way for Hun Sen’s summit showing. With the all-clear sign at home for sustained electoral dictatorship, the Cambodian strongman was able to concentrate on his foreign policy legacy and statesmanship. Noticeably, Cambodia this year co-sponsored and supported the two principal United Nations resolutions to condemn Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian people and subsequent annexation of eastern parts of their country, whereas Thailand supported the former motion and shamefully abstained from the latter.
In Phnom Penh, the key takeaway may have been Beijing’s proposal for a “3.0” upgraded version of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement beyond the first iteration more than a decade ago and the more recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Tabled by Premier Li Keqiang, this geoeconomic manoeuver appears crafted to outflank the US’ Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The conspicuous blot in Phnom Penh was ASEAN’s inability to do anything constructive about Myanmar’s junta and its perpetration of a heinous war against its own citizens.