Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was greeted Tuesday in Phnom Penh with fluttering flags and a flower ceremony at the Vietnam Friendship Memorial to begin a two-day visit, marking one of the most notable recent visits from ASEAN leaders.
Details were sparse about Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s meetings with Prime Minister Hun Sen and others among the highest-ranking Cambodian government officials.
A personal assistant to Hun Sen said the first day’s meetings were intended to deepen the long-standing relationship between the two countries. Meanwhile, a government spokesman said the kingdom’s latest diplomatic visits, which include the Vietnamese president and officials from Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, are also likely related to Cambodia’s ASEAN chairship.
“First, they come to pay a courtesy, and second, they might have to do lobbying because Cambodia is ASEAN chair,” said spokesman Phay Siphan.
The chair position has pulled the country onto a more prominent regional stage, with both fellow bloc members and major powers such as the U.S. and China closely watching Cambodia’s performance. On a recent visit, U.S. State Department official Derek Chollet urged Cambodian officials not to make any concessions to Myanmar’s military junta following Hun Sen’s announced visit to Nyapyidaw.
The prime minister announced his intentions for bilateral diplomacy with Myanmar along with a reassignment of ASEAN’s special envoy to deal with the junta. Hun Sen said he intends to find a way to restore Myanmar’s position in the regional bloc, a move that could draw opposition from states committed to ASEAN’s “five-point plan” for mitigating the post-coup crisis.
Political analyst Meas Nee said the top ASEAN officials visiting Cambodia are likely lobbying for their 2022 national agendas, including the South China Sea dispute.
“ASEAN is breaking out their politics caused by geopolitics, and the recent issue happening in Myanmar,” he said, adding that the long-running South China Sea dispute is causing internal tension in the bloc.
“It is a difficult time for ASEAN, and unfortunately, Cambodia has the chairmanship,” Nee said. “If Cambodia can bring ASEAN unity and resolve the issue of Myanmar, I think Cambodia will be proud.”
The South China Sea issue has troubled Cambodia’s past round as ASEAN chair, which included the bloc’s 2012 failure to issue a joint statement – the first and so far only time in ASEAN history when that has happened. As chair, Cambodia was seen as responsible for this failure, especially as its representatives had moved to block criticism of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.