Could ASEAN expel Cambodia and Laos over their allegiance to China?

Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

ASEAN remains a key player in Southeast Asia’s diplomatic architecture. However, a growing debate on the expulsion of member states may divide the grouping deeply.

By Umair Jamal

A former Singaporean diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan, recently said that ASEAN should consider expelling Cambodia and Laos for serving China’s proxies in the region, as their apparent allegiance to a foreign power may be threatening the regional bloc as a whole.

This is not the first time that an ASEAN member state has been threatened with potential expulsion—Myanmar’s membership was questioned a number of times in the early 2000s when the country was under military dictatorship.

But it is unlikely that ASEAN member states will evict Cambodia and Laos from the regional grouping for a number of strategic reasons. However, the suggestion could prove disastrous for the regional bloc’s unity at a time when external powers are aiming to upset the group’s neutral stance.

USS Gabrielle Giffords pictured in the South China Sea. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Why did Kausikan question Cambodia and Laos’s commitment to ASEAN?

Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, caused a diplomatic storm by suggesting that Cambodia and Laos were “teetering precariously” towards China and becoming sources of regional instability.

In his remarks, Kausikan said that two Mekong nations’ lack of engagement in the South China Sea controversy indirectly supports Beijing’s view on the issue. Cambodia and Laos “have some difficult choices to make,” Kausikan said. “And if they should make the wrong choices, they will confront ASEAN as a whole with difficult choices. We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight.”

In Kausikan’s view, as relatively new members of ASEAN, Cambodia and Laos have never been able to truly comprehend that regional and national interests are closely linked. As Kausikan explains, “One of the mistakes ASEAN made was expansion without adequate socialization of new members.”

He believes that ASEAN may have to take the adverse step of pushing Cambodia and Laos out to save the organization itself. “If [removal] ever comes to pass, it will be for the future,” Kausikan said. “But it is worth thinking about even if only as a contingency. We should not dismiss the possibility out of hand.”

Can an attempt to expel Cambodia and Laos from ASEAN succeed?

The removal of Cambodia and Laos from ASEAN is not likely to happen for many reasons.

Firstly, technically, any such move would require the vote of all other member states. For instance, if Cambodia and Laos are to be expelled from ASEAN, all other eight member states have to agree to it. It is unlikely that nations like Thailand and Myanmar, with no direct stakes in the South China Sea dispute, are going to support any such effort.

Second, ASEAN member nations should be aware that the potential expulsion of any nation from the group would ultimately change the sense of Southeast Asian regional identity. Once a country leaves ASEAN, Southeast Asia’s geopolitics would change forever. It is unlikely that any government in the region wants to take that route.

Third, proposing the expulsion of a member country for holding a particular foreign policy stance is not practical. ASEAN nations have worked hard to maintain the bloc’s neutrality in the face of many external pressures, particularly with regard to China and the United States.

However, on the national level, each state in Southeast Asia has been striving to defend its national interests through trade agreements and by avoiding or pushing for certain policies in their neighborhoods. In this context, similar accusations of allowing foreign states to influence policy could be leveled against other nations as well. Were an expulsion to be considered seriously, all ASEAN member countries would have to give up their foreign policy preferences and commit to a single ASEAN security, trade, and foreign policy agenda.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why is the idea of expulsion from ASEAN potentially dangerous?

Kausikan’s comment comes amid an escalating competition between the US and China for influence in Southeast Asia.

Over the past two decades, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has relied on Chinese economic assistance to forestall Western pressure meant to push democratic reforms in the country. Laos has also grown closer to Beijing over the years.

China’s rise has arguably worsened ASEAN’s inherent tensions. Much of this has to do with growing disunity among member states over how to deal with the roles of both China and the US in the region.

Sebastian Strangio, in his recent book “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century“, argues that ASEAN’s role remains important in Southeast Asia’s “diplomatic architecture” but notes that Beijing’s rise has exposed the bloc’s fault lines.

“The ten ASEAN nations differ considerably on the question of China in general, and on the South China Sea dispute in particular, opening up gaps into which Beijing has thrust wedges of economic inducement,” notes Strangio.

Beijing has been very effective at exploiting ASEAN’s shortcomings and wouldn’t mind a weakened and internally-divided ASEAN. “As China’s power increases, it thus poses fundamental challenge to ASEAN’s cohesion, and perhaps, in time, to the very idea of ‘Southeast Asia’ itself,” says Strangio.

The ongoing debate on removing members from the group comes at a time when the regional bloc needs unity to avert external pressures. 

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15