ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting: Secretary of State Antony Blinken Visits Cambodia and the Philippines

August 5, 2022 – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Cambodia. A press conference was given at Raffle Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, according the Cambodian government press release. Secretary Blinken met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. $25 millions in aid was announced to help promote food security and economic growth in Cambodia’s agriculture sector.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Phnom Penh on August 5, 2022

The U.S. State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price released a summary of the meeting which discussed the worsening crisis in Burma, and that Cambodia has an important role as ASEAN Chair in co-sponsoring two UN resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Secretary Blinken asked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to be fully transparent about activities by the People’s Republic of China at Ream Naval Base, emphasizing that Chinese military presence in Cambodia would risk damaging Cambodia’s sovereignty, regional security, and ASEAN unity.

The Secretary also urged the Prime Minister to reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2023 elections and make progress on democracy and to respect human rights by ensuring all Cambodians, including Kem Sokha, co-leader of main opposition party CNRP who was charged with treason in 2017, can participate freely in the political process.

He also pressed the Prime Minister to release activists detained on politically motivated charges such as Theary Seng, an American Cambodian civil rights defender who was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison on June 14. Similar demands were also recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn during his official visit to Cambodia on August 26.

The Cambodian press release, on the other hand, omitted any mention the U.S. State Department’s urging of opening of political space ahead of the 2023 elections and failed any mention of democracy or human rights. It only mentioned in general term that “the United States will continue to strengthen good relations with Cambodia on the basis of existing cooperation, such as trade and development assistance.” Cambodia has increased its ties with China in recent years, ignoring U.S. calls for opening the democratic and civic space.

Following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2, numerous other high-level U.S. officials travelled to the region to strengthen the ties with ASEAN. The tension between the U.S. and China showed during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Cambodia. It was reported that Chinese State Counselor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi left the meeting prior to the evening Gala due to the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Blinken. The argument over Taiwan also was lively during the meeting according to a report by Reuter. The U.S. declared that it would back Taiwan’s military should China attack. As a result of Pelosi’s visit, China responded angrily by launching missiles exercises off Taiwan’s coast, China also cut off military communications with the U.S. and as well as their participation in combating climate change.

After Cambodia, Secretary Blinken visited the Philippines and met with newly elected President Marco Fernandez Jr. In a press conference in Manila, Secretary Blinken reaffirmed the United State’s commitment to the U.S – Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. He said that “an armed attack on Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke a U.S mutual defense commitments under that treaty.” He said what happen in the Taiwan Strait affects the entire region. “Almost half the global container fleet, nearly 90 percent of the world’s largest ships, pass through the Taiwan Strait this year. Since their missile launches, Beijing has taken an irresponsible step.” The conflicts between two superpower countries the US and China isn’t something the ASEAN state members want to choose side because of their economic development, regional stability and peace.

ASEAN’s response to the military junta’s coup last year has been slow and divided, unable to bring any real change while Myanmar plunged into civil war and fell under a state of crisis. The Cambodian Prime Minister’s friendliness with the Junta drew sharp criticism; however, the military leaders are banned from ASEAN meetings as the Cambodian Foreign Minister cited that the execution of democracy activists last month upset ASEAN leaders and their attitudes have changed.

The significance of the ASEAN bloc still draws attention from superpower countries like China and the US although the regional collaboration remain weak as each country is experiencing many levels of democratic decline. Vietnam, for example, is a communist country which has no democratic elections. However, the US chose to have close ties with Vietnam in order to fight back China’s influence in the region (is an old playbook). Cambodia became a one-party rule in 2017 under strongman Hun Sen for more than three decades, and make alliance between China and the US, depending on who it considers a better friend.