Cheunboran Chanborey, "Asean and Scapegoats," khmertimeskh.com
There have been two different narratives emerging from the last Asean meetings. The first narrative painted a gloomy picture of Cambodia as a spoiler of Asean, whereas the other is of pragmatic neutrality.
Immediately after the AMM reached a stalemate, Cambodia was reportedly blamed for blocking any phrase about the arbitration and about militarization in the South China Sea. Diplomats leaked to the media an accusation that the deadlock was the same story again – a repeat of the meeting in 2012, referring to Asean’s failure to issue a joint communiqué, known as the “Phnom Penh Fiasco,” in July 2012 while Cambodia was chairing Asean.
Diplomats and commentators quickly accused Cambodia of having been bought by China, sometimes pointing to Chinese aid worth about $600 million that Premier Li Keqiang announced during his meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on the sidelines of the 11th Asia-Europe Summit in Mongolia a week earlier.
For example, analyst Malcolm Cook maintained that Cambodia “clearly sees relations with China as more important than its membership in Asean and is willing to damage Asean to aid its relations with China” and that “Cambodia’s paralysis on Asean hurts Asean’s unity, cohesion, relevance and reputation.”
However, diplomats who attended the meetings revealed a different picture of what was happing [sic]. One diplomat said on condition of anonymity that most Asean countries, especially those who had no claims in the South China Sea, wished to stay out of the South China Sea dispute.
He said “no one but the Philippines insisted that the arbitral ruling be included” in the joint communiqué. ...
There is a perception in Phnom Penh that Cambodia has once again been a scapegoat of Asean disunity. There is therefore an urgent need for Phnom Penh to address what Phnom Penh called the “unjust accusation.” Cambodia must begin a diplomatic campaign to rectify its image as an independent and constructive player in the region, rather than a “proxy” or “puppet” of China.
To this end, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry needs to engage in an extensive public diplomacy campaign by working closely with national and regional think thanks as well as the media to provide greater coverage of Cambodian perspectives on Asean and other important regional issues. ...
As a small state, support and assistance from the great powers, including China, is crucial for economic development and safeguarding territorial integrity. Now it is widely seen that China is Phnom Penh’s most important economic and strategic partner.
Cambodia’s strengthening ties with Beijing might alienate some Asean members and other major powers that are engaged in strategic competitions with a rising China. This has already been taking place due to Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea.
In this context, Cambodia should seek like-minded Asean friends in order to present a common position on the South China Sea against other Asean members’ efforts to hijack Asean for their individual claims in the disputed sea. By doing so, Cambodia can promote Asean-China relations as well as regional peace and stability without the risk of being seen as an Asean spoiler. ...