A more confident Cambodia is taking on the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a potentially critical transition year. But a botched leadership in the past and concerns over the influence of its top patron, China, cast a long shadow on its role. Phnom Penh realizes that while relative success at home frees up more energy to engage in regional diplomacy, getting the buy-in of its neighbors and shepherding consensus requires more skill. With such grave challenges, that include stimulating recovery from the pandemic, addressing the crisis in Myanmar, managing disputes in the South China Sea, and navigating growing U.S.-China tensions, ASEAN will have its hands full.
Cambodia’s health and economic performance imbue it with a sense of confidence as it assumes the once-in-a-decade revolving ASEAN post. The country is a bright spot in Southeast Asia. It has some of the lowest numbers of Covid-19 cases and the highest vaccination rates in the region, factors that may bode well on its road to recovery. Its economy has also been growing by around 7 percent annually over the last decade. In fact, in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, World Bank figures show that the country posted the highest growth rate in the region at 7.054 percent, ahead of neighboring Vietnam’s 7.017.