Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen kicked off his rotational chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with characteristic “cowboy diplomacy.” Just months after the regional organization disinvited Myanmar’s junta leaders from regional meetings due to the lack of progress on the implementation the “Five Point Consensus”, the Cambodia leader became the first head of state to visit the country.

In effect, Hun Sen unliterally lifted the limited diplomatic embargo on the junta and, accordingly, helped legitimize the brutal regime in clear defiance of the ASEAN consensus. The controversial move drew censure from key regional members, including Malaysia and Singapore, which reiterated the need for a principled and results-oriented approach to the Myanmar crisis based on preexisting consensus among member states.

By and large, the Cambodian leader is also expected to push for a divergent approach to the other major regional crisis: the South China Sea disputes. The last time Hun Sen was in charge of ASEAN, he tried to block even the mere discussion of the high-stakes disputes in a nod to his strategic patrons in Beijing. The upshot was a diplomatic meltdown, which saw ASEAN failing to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it may rhyme.

To avoid a similar debacle, key ASEAN members should move on three fronts simultaneously: (i) openly censure any real or potential abuse of chairman’s prerogatives at the expense of regional principles and shared interests; (ii) step up “minilateral” cooperation on maritime security, especially among frontline states confronting China’s maritime assertiveness; and (iii) coordinate diplomatic efforts with likeminded external powers such as the United States, which have emphasized the need for a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Chairman’s Prerogatives

According to conventional wisdom, ASEAN strictly operates on the twin principles of muafakat (consensus) and musyawarah (consultation). In short, the “ASEAN Way” is supposedly to proceed at a snail’s pace, painfully negotiating consensus on every major issue confronting the region.

Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that obstinate emphasis on consensus is often a recipe for disaster and institutional paralysis. Certain issues are by nature divisive and preclude the possibility of arriving at unanimity. Historically, ASEAN navigated potential deadlocks through three often underappreciated methods.

First, the selective adoption of an “ASEAN Minus X” formula, a majority-based decision-making modality,  allowed regional states to successfully negotiate, inter alia, a major free trade deal among themselves. Second, ASEAN states have also often adopted “minilateral” methods to addressing urgent crises, most notably during the successful multilateral stabilization of post-war Cambodia and East Timor in the 1990s.

The final crucial element, however, has been the power of ASEAN chairman, which is embodied by the leader of the member state selected as regional chairman on an annual, rotational basis. In particular, an ASEAN chairman has two kinds of prerogatives, namely the power to  (i)  determine the agenda of the regional body as well as (ii) issue a “chairman’s statement” whenever there is dissensus among member states.

The last time Hun Sen was in charge of ASEAN, he made the most out of his chairman prerogatives. Shortly after the 2012 visit of then Chinese President Hu Jintao to Cambodia, where he offered large-scale investment deals, Hun Sen quickly acted on Beijing’s request for ASEAN not to move “too fast” on negotiating a COC in the South China Sea.

In a clear breach of both etiquette and established tradition, the Cambodia leader repeatedly tried to block the mere mention of the South China Sea disputes, even as the Philippines, a founding ASEAN member, reeled from a months-long naval standoff with China over the Scarborough Shoal. The upshot was a verbal tussle between Hun Sen and then Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who warned, “The ASEAN route is not the only route for us.”

Since then, Hun Sen has shown little sign of strategic repentance. When ASEAN states tried to find a consensus around the Philippines’ arbitration case against China at the Hague, the Cambodian leader openly lamented: “It is very unjust for Cambodia, using Cambodia to counter China…this is not about laws, it is totally about politics.”

If anything, recent years have Hun Sen further tilting into China’s strategic orbit, best exemplified by Chinee-dominated coastal cities and the reported construction of a Chinese naval facility in Ream. His controversial decision to visit and legitimize the Myanmar junta is broadly in line with China’s diplomatic position. Thus, there is every reason to expect Hun Sen to also toe Beijing’s line on the South China Sea disputes.

Adults in the Room

To be fair, Cambodia will likely try to avoid a major diplomatic backlash by not exactly replicating its position back in 2012. But as one Cambodia expert put it, “Cambodia will likely continue to assert that the claimant states should address the disputes bilaterally and stay away from getting involved in this hot issue.”

In short, Hun Sen will try his best to downplay the South China Sea disputes, echoing Beijing’s all-is-good talking points regardless of the actual situation on the ground. Clearly, this doesn’t bode well for the ongoing ASEAN-China negotiations over a legally-binding COC, which would tame Beijing’s worst instincts in accordance with prevailing international law.

And this is precisely where founding ASEAN members should step in. In recent weeks, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines have all pushed back against any cowboy diplomacy over Myanmar.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo held extensive discussion over phone with his Cambodian counterpart earlier this year to emphasize the need for regional unity and preservation of ASEAN centrality. Meanwhile, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. publicly criticized the junta’s “refusal to give the special envoy of the ASEAN chair access to all stakeholders, as intended by the Consensus” as “disappointing.”

Following Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar, Malaysia openly criticized the move by declaring, “[h]e could have done the visit as a bilateral visit as a head of state but when you have assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN, it would have been construed wrongly.”

On his part, Singaporean Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong held a video conference with Hun Sen, where he emphasized the need for sticking to the earlier decision to disinvite top junta leaders from ASEAN meetings.

Core ASEAN states should adopt a similarly proactive position vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes by calling a spade a spade. They should gently—and if need be, even publicly—discourage Hun Sen from undermining regional efforts aimed at effectively managing the maritime disputes. Utilizing bilateral and multilateral channels, ASEAN founding members should collectively push for the finalization of long drawn negotiations over a legally-binding COC in the South China Sea.

It’s extremely important for core ASEAN members to coordinate their efforts with likeminded external powers such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and the European Union, which have supported ASEAN centrality and called for an UNCLOS-based resolution of the South China Sea disputes. This way, they can collectively counter any corrosive Chinese influence on the ASEAN agenda this year.

Moreover, core ASEAN members should also step up minilateral maritime security cooperation among each other. To this end, the head of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) recently invited counterparts from Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines to join a regional forum in order to “share experiences and foster brotherhood.”

Down the road, uncertainties over ASEAN centrality in the South China Sea should further encourage robust and institutionalized maritime security cooperation and coordinated diplomatic response among frontline states, which have been grappling with China’s creeping expansion across the South China Sea and beyond.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.