Summit in Phnom Penh opens Southeast month


The annual ASEAN summit is being held in Cambodia until 13 November. It is the first of three major events in November, together with APEC and G20, which will see the area at the centre of the international political scene. Between divisions and major issues, here is the agenda of the regional bloc's summit

Article by Francesco Mattogno

A month at the centre of world diplomacy. Home to three major international events, for much of November South-East Asia is a compulsory stop on the agendas of the leaders of the major powers. The first event is the 40th and 41st annual summits of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASEAN) taking place in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, until 13 November. The term 'summit' is reductive. It is six days of non-stop bilateral and multilateral meetings, from the Business and Investment Summit (ABIS) to the 25th ASEAN-China Summit and 10th ASEAN-US Summit. Many guests have also chosen to join the heads of state or government of the Association's member countries, including senior international officials such as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and European Council President Charles Michel.

As for the ASEAN countries, Min Aung Hlaing is not present. This is the second year in a row that the general and coup prime minister of Myanmar has not been invited to the summit, a consequence of the civil war unleashed following the military coup on 1 February 2021. As for China, no trip to Cambodia for Xi Jinping: in his place Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Li arrived early to meet both Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Joe Biden is instead expected to attend the meetings on 12 and 13 November. This is the first trip to Cambodia by a US President since 2012, when Barack Obama visited the country at the very last ASEAN summit chaired by Hun Sen before that.  

The non-decisions on Myanmar have highlighted gaps in the ASEAN decision-making process and reignited the debate on overcoming the 'consensus principle', whereby every member state must agree at the time of a resolution. All material for the Phnom Penh summit, where issues such as the environment, energy and post-covid recovery will probably only frame questions on politics and security. So much so that Hun Sen himself had tried, unsuccessfully, to make the summit the venue for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. 

And politics is always at the heart of the American and Chinese presence at the summit. China winked at ASEAN by concluding a series of agreements with Vietnam and Singapore just a few days before the summit (the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, was the first to meet Xi Jinping after the 20th Congress). On 26 October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also received ASEAN diplomats in Beijing, saying he hoped the Association would remain 'independent' in the future.

In turn, Biden had invited the bloc's leaders to Washington last May, ushering in a 'new era' of US-ASEAN relations. For this reason, the US President could focus on emphasising the benefits of cooperation in the fields of economic, digital, and environmental development, trying to show himself as an alternative to the People's Republic. Indeed, the US and ASEAN could establish a Global Strategic Partnership, the same one signed at last year's summit between the Association and its main trading partner: China. It is somewhat the state of normality in South-East Asia, pulled to either side. The region's aim is to remain in balance between the great powers, just as they are all knocking at its door.

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