How Will Cambodia’s Post-2023 Election Foreign Policy Evolve Amid Shifting Succession Dynamics?
Plus China's overseas base ambitions; Southeast Asia at the biggest U.S.-Australia exercise yet; and much more.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Asessing the foreign policy implications of Cambodia’s post-2023 election succession dynamics after Prime Minister Hun Sen’s transition announcement;
Mapping of regional developments including Southeast Asian state participation at the largest iteration of a major U.S.-Australia exercise and the significance of a Malaysia-Philippines summit meeting;
Charting evolving trends on China’s overseas basing plans and Myanmar’s conflict patterns;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments related to a new Vietnam free trade pact, Southeast Asia’s first opposition crypto bank and more;
And much more! ICYMI, check out our take on what lies ahead for Philippine foreign and security policy after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s annual State of the Nation Address.
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WonkCount: 1,783 words (~9 minutes reading time)
Southeast Asia at Biggest U.S.-Australia Exercise Yet; US Post-Cambodia Election Restrictions; China-Indonesia Relations & More
How Will Cambodia’s Post-2023 Election Foreign Policy Evolve Amid Evolving Succession Dynamics?
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s announcement that he will turn over power to his eldest son Hun Manet following the ruling party’s landslide election victory raises the question of how the country’s foreign policy may evolve in the coming months amid lingering concerns about the country’s own constraints in cultivating a more diverse set of alignments and the risks of its growing dependence on China alongside the opportunities it affords its rulers.
What’s Behind It
Hun Sen officially announced a long-anticipated kickstarting of a succession process, making his eldest son Hun Manet prime minister but continuing to hold prominent positions. Hun Sen, who has governed Cambodia for nearly four decades, has said he would continue to be involved in politics and hold positions including as head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), member of the Supreme Council of the King and Senate president (which is the head of state in the absence of the country’s monarch)1.
The succession comes amid growing scrutiny around Cambodia’s alignments over the past few years under Hun Sen’s nearly four decades in power. Hun Sen’s rise to power dates back to 1985 in the midst of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, and after a bloody coup in 1997 that consolidated his position, the early part of his reign saw Cambodia integrate into ASEAN and develop itself economically2. Yet following unprecedented opposition gains in 2013, Hun Sen’s mounting democratic crackdown and specific manifestations of his growing dependence on China to sustain regime support — most visibly today a Chinese facility in Ream naval base — have complicated Cambodia’s own foreign policy diversification efforts, caused unease in parts of Southeast Asia with regard to implications for regional issues such as the South China Sea and increasingly alienated some Western governments. While Cambodian officials can point to a few cases which afford some degree of diversification, notably in the elevation of ties with Japan, progress with other countries has been slower and more complex than initially envisioned.
Why It Matters
The succession process raises questions around how this will affect Cambodia’s foreign policy, given Hun Sen’s prominent role in the country’s international engagements and related regional developments. Cambodia’s evolving succession dynamics also take place amid a busy period for mainland Southeast Asia, with Thailand’s post-election maneuvering, ongoing conflict in Myanmar and the lead up to Laos’ ASEAN chairmanship in 2024. In just the month leading up to polls, Cambodia’s pre-election period was punctuated by sudden statements and moves by Hun Sen on a range of subjects affecting other mainland Southeast Asian states, major powers like the United States and social media companies, reinforcing his hold on power in the country. Thus far, expectations are that his hold on prominent positions means he will likely still continue to exercise some power in how the country runs.
Select Recent Hun Sen-Related Pre-Election Developments in Cambodia
The ongoing developments also spotlight how Hun Manet and newer CPP leaders might approach Cambodia’s international orientation. Despite the selective focus on parts of Hun Manet’s background such as his experience at WestPoint, previous speeches, or his recent forays abroad, these are not substitutes for how he will actually conduct foreign policy when he has the full latitude to do so or is faced with unexpected crises. Another key unknown is his relationships with other CPP leaders and the balance of power within the party, which will necessarily need recalibrating as Hun Sen’s outsized role diminishes. That is important because Cambodian officials have signaled that much of the country’s cabinet will also see changes, with a few key posts being transferred down generationally in the case of major figures3.
Where It’s Headed
Looking ahead, all eyes will be on how the initial stages of the transition play out. Hun Manet will likely be confirmed prime minister by the afternoon of August 22, on the same day that the new cabinet will be sworn in and just after the convening of the newly-elected parliament on August 21. Speculation has already been mounting about specific cabinet positions, and these will be finalized as well including for foreign, defense and economic affairs. Of course, these dynamics will not change the broader foreign policy challenge for Cambodia beyond the prism of U.S.-China competition: that its greater drift towards authoritarianism has limited its ability to engage with diverse major powers beyond China even as its dependence on Beijing deepens – with not only opportunities but also risks of their own borne by the Cambodian people and felt by some of its neighbors.
As this occurs, Cambodia’s early foreign engagements and reactions by major foreign governments will also be revealing. Thus far, we have only seen initial responses from countries as the dust settles — be it initial unspecified U.S. restrictions or quick laudatory messages from countries supportive of Cambodia, some of which had been in Cambodia to observe the elections declared by several countries as neither free nor fair. And while the CPP has been quick to signal foreign policy continuity in areas like China policy, the true test of this will be when we actually see Cambodia’s evolving political system operate in the coming months, including Hun Sen’s role and the ability of younger ministers to exert their influence, even at the fringes which can be revealing about their tendencies.
China’s Overseas Naval Base Ambitions; Perspectives on Regional Order; Myanmar Junta Tactical Shift
“While the official investment to date has been small, Ream, Cambodia, is very likely to be a PLAN facility in one form or another,” notes a report by AidData on China’s global port ambitions and implications for future overseas naval bases. The report goes on to note that apart from strategic trends at play, quantitative metrics also indicate a significant gap between Cambodia and the United States, with a case in point being very low voting congruence at the United Nations, which is at a rate only slightly higher than Iran, Cuba and Syria. That said, from a global perspective, committed investment in Ream still lags the top 20 ports (see table below) (link).
Ranking of Top 20 Chinese Investment Commitments to Global Ports
“To put it succinctly, ASEAN represents a mediatory voice,” notes the introduction to a new series of articles on Asian conceptions of the liberal international order (LIO) published by International Affairs. The series argues that Southeast Asian states represent part of a diverse array of voices within the region that support the main aspects of the LIO but have their concerns and voice them differently — at times within ASEAN as an alternative regional space beyond global arrangements, and at times through their divergent perceptions of aspects of the LIO such as alliances. All in all, of the ten primary cases, six of them are in Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam (the others include China, India, Japan and South Korea) (link).
“The coming months could see the junta return to its earlier strategy of widespread arson and indiscriminate violence while continuing more-targeted search-and-destroy missions against the PDFs,” warns the latest update of IISS’ Myanmar Conflict Update. The update argues that a shift in junta tactics may be at play in Myanmar’s war-torn Dry Zone, which has been the epicenter of the resistance movement (link).