Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Nên trục xuất Campuchia và Lào ra khỏi ASEAN? Time to boot Cambodia out of ASEAN

Cambodia and Singapore are in a backchannel war of words over a retired Singaporean diplomat's suggestion that Phnom Penh should be booted from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc if an external power is controlling its policies.  

As a thinly veiled accusation that Cambodia, as well as Laos, are dutybound to the whims and commands of China, both bloc members' main ally and financier, the ex-official's comment comes amid an intensifying rivalry between the US and China for leverage in the strategic region.

"True neutrality means knowing your own interests, taking positions based on your own interests and not allowing others to define your interests for you by default," Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry, said during an October 23 webinar hosted the by Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

As relatively new ASEAN members, Cambodia and Laos "have some difficult choices to make," he added. "And if they should make wrong choices, they will confront ASEAN as a whole with difficult choices. We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight."

Asia Times understands that officials in Phnom Penh were incensed over the weekend after reading Bilahari's remarks, which add to a growing chorus of accusations from certain foreign governments that Cambodia's close ties with Beijing are becoming a new source of regional instability.

The first riposte from Phnom Penh came on Tuesday when an "open letter" was published in the Cambodian government's mouthpiece Fresh News, significantly ramping up the tensions in less than diplomatic language.  

Bilahari's remarks were "repulsive" and "sensationalist, inconsistent and at times contradictory", said the letter, apparently written by former and active Cambodian diplomats, according to sources familiar with the situation. There was no immediate indication that China had a hand in the letter's language.

"Lest he is senile and forgetful", it went on, Bilahari has forgotten that "ASEAN has never been designed to retain a supra-national authority to dictate the economic, political, strategic direction of its member states," a reference to the so-called "ASEAN way" of non-interference in the internal affairs of other bloc member states.

Moreover, the anonymous authors of the open letter went on to question Singapore's domestic politics. "Those 'Wolf Warriors' and so-called think-tankers," it stated, referring to Bilahari and the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, "conveniently ignore the very fact that some regional countries, including Singapore…have provided military basing or leasing rights to external powers for far too long."

Singapore, often regarded as a staunch strategic ally of the US, last year renewed an agreement to allow American troops to use its bases until 2035. Britain, which has new strategic ambitions for the region, also retains some access to the island-state's military sites.


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