Transborder Party Contacts in Southeast Asia

Partyforumseasia: In Europe, there are regular contacts between political parties, usually along the ideological lines in the so called political families, like conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and greens. In the European parliament they form groupings and try to coordinate political initiatives. In Southeast Asia there is only one political family group active over the last 29 years. Members are the Democrat Party of Thailand, the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, the Liberal Party of the Philippines, the  Singapore Democratic Party, the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka, the Cambodia National Rescue Party ,the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia, the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, the Indonesia Democratic Party Struggle (PDI-P), and the Liberal Forum Pakistan is an associate member. The National League for Democracy of Myanmar, the National Awakening Party of Indonesia, and the Democratic Party of Japan are observer parties.

On this background, the following article from the fulcrum series of the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute about the recent cross-border activities of the Chinese CCP is very interesting.

China’s Pragmatic Party Diplomacy in Southeast Asia PUBLISHED 22 JUN 2022


The Chinese Communist Party’s outreach to political parties in Southeast Asia, regardless of ideology, underscores the pragmatism in President Xi Jinping’s plan for regional influence.

The recent return of ideology to China’s domestic politics and Beijing’s increasing confidence in the Chinese model of politics have elicited growing attention to how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conducts its outreach abroad. Given Southeast Asia’s critical role in China’s neighbourhood diplomacy, party-to-party exchanges have featured prominently in Beijing’s approach towards the region, especially since President Xi Jinping assumed power. The CCP has engaged with political parties in Southeast Asia through high-level conferences and summits, seminars and forums, and training sessions. The growing prominence of China’s party diplomacy in the region begs the question of whether it is driven by ideological zeal — harking back to its export of communist revolutionary ideology to Southeast Asia in the 1950s-1970s — or pragmatism.

Due to the blurred line between party and state under China’s one-party system, the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP, founded in 1951, complements the role of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in managing China’s external affairs. China’s party diplomacy is considered an indispensable component of President Xi’s Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics plan.

On its part, the ILD claims to have connections with over 600 political parties and organisations from more than 160 countries and regions. According to its website, in the past two years, the CCP has sought to strengthen its fraternity with the communist parties of Vietnam and Laos, and to forge ties with non-communist secular and religious parties across Southeast Asia despite the Covid-19 pandemic (see Table 1). The authoritarian turn in politics in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines over the past decade provided a golden opportunity for the CCP to enhance ties with their ruling parties, which helped China to further consolidate its political and economic influence in the region. Yet China continues to maintain relations with parties in most Southeast Asian countries, reflecting its pragmatic approach to party diplomacy, which is aimed at ‘transcending differences in ideology and political systems’ and ‘building a global political party partnership network.’

Table 1: CCP’s Contacts with Political Party by Country, January 2020 to May 2022

Source: Website of the International Liaison Department (ILD),

The pragmatism of China’s party diplomacy is also manifest in the key messages it conveys to Southeast Asian political parties. First, instead of preaching communist doctrine, China promotes its governance experience in party building, economic development, pandemic prevention and poverty alleviation. These were attributed to the strong leadership of the CCP with President Xi as its core. The ILD has introduced Xi Jinping: The Governance of China — a collection of Xi’s speeches and writings on state governance — in its meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, launching vernacular versions of Xi’s book in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. China’s Xinhua News Agency touted that the book launch drew ‘scores of readers from the Senate, the National Assembly and all ministries’ in Cambodia. Nop Kuch, head of the Cambodian Senate’s Human Resources Development Department, said that learning about China’s experience would enable Cambodia to synthesise its development strategy with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thailand’s prime minister General Prayut Chan-ocha is also reported to have asked his cabinet to read the book.

Second, the CCP regards its interactions with political parties in Southeast Asia as a crucial channel for promoting its economic agenda, especially the BRI. Between January 2020 and May 2022, the CCP established BRI Political Parties Joint Consultation Mechanisms with parties in Indonesiathe Philippines, and Thailand; and convened the BRI Joint Consultation Conference to engage parties in South Asian and Southeast Asian countries collectively. What is the added value of these consultation mechanisms? The CCP’s understanding of the difference between ‘state diplomacy’ and ‘party diplomacy’ means that while governments must abide by diplomatic protocols in state-to-state exchanges, inter-party contacts are not constrained by such protocols and are more flexible. Establishing such mechanisms thus allows the CCP to promote normative aspects of the BRI such as open regionalism, multilateralism, developmentalism and win-win cooperation.

Particularly for illiberal leaders who have engineered democratic backsliding in their own countries and have incurred criticism from Western governments, the CCP’s diplomatic and economic support could provide resources for political survival.

Third, the CCP has sought to rally moral support from Southeast Asia to buffer itself against Western criticisms of China’s handling of sensitive political issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Covid-19 origin-tracing. Portraying China as friendly and benign, the CCP has criticised Western narratives as groundless ‘accusations’ that discredit China’s achievements and interfere with China’s internal affairs. The ILD’s coverage of meetings with political parties in Cambodia and the Philippines underscored the latter’s firm support of China’s stance on these issues. From China’s perspective, such moves serve to cement its solidarity with Southeast Asian political parties and enhance its reputation.

China’s governance model, rooted in the one-party system, is certainly not an attractive example for all the Southeast Asian nation-states. However, the CCP’s success in tightening its political grip through party-building and digital surveillance, while alleviating poverty and achieving economic growth, likely holds significant appeal for some regimes which are eager to entrench their political control while stirring economic recovery post-pandemic. Particularly for illiberal leaders who have engineered democratic backsliding in their own countries and have incurred criticism from Western governments, the CCP’s diplomatic and economic support could provide resources for political survival. Ultimately, the efficacy of China’s party diplomacy in Southeast Asia is contingent on the tangible benefits it can deliver. 2022/186


Dynastic Succession, New Opposition in Cambodia and the Upcoming Commune Elections

Partyforumseasia: The recent accession of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the presidency of the Philippines, 36 years after his father was ousted, did not come as a surprise to many in the country and to their friends abroad. It had been prepared since the return of the clan from exile in 1991, and it had been planned with political skills and lots of money, obviously remaining from the billions plundered by the late dictator.

Another dynastic succession is in the making, so far without much attention from the international media. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is in power for 37 years by now, has been grooming his son Hun Manet for the succession for many years already. The 44-year-old is the eldest son and lieutenant general as well as commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces since 2018. Western educated at Westpoint and Bristol University, he is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the party’s top decision-making body, and the head of its youth wing. Already in December 2021, the Central Committee of the CPP has unanimously voted for Hun Manet to be the candidate for the next prime minister. The succession is somewhat on the backburner, though, since his father Hun Sen wants to run for another term in the 2023 election and let his son take over the chairmanship of the party first.

Even though most Cambodians have got used to the idea of dynastic succession, it did not come as a surprise that senior opposition leader Sam Rainsy criticised it from his exile in France immediately after the Central Committee decision as “clan-based succession” with the danger that other CPP leaders would follow suit with their own children.

As the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire. The somewhat suspicious smoke is that on 30 May, the CPP spokesman Sok Eysan felt it necessary to defend the succession decision as democratic and the good right of the party. He added that successions in other countries have not been uncommon as well, the Bush father and son in the USA, the Prime Minister of Japan, Nobusuke Kishi, and his grandson Shinzo Abe in Japan, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore.  Prime Minister Hun Sen himself spoke about the career of his son in the Nikkei Future of Asia Conference two weeks ago. The Khmer Times (31 May) quotes him as saying to journalists: “There is nothing illegal because I taught my children not to become thieves. Who does not want to see their children succeed, get rich and want them to become a country leader?” The three words, thieves and get rich, especially in the regional context, sound somewhat bizarre, since the Hun family is well known for a number of successful investments.

So, why did they feel compelled to comment just now? The answer is simple, on 5 June there will be communal elections and the CPP is probably not too sure that it will have a clean sweep, despite its control of Cambodia’s 1,652 communes, which was well engineered. In the 2017 elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had won 40 per cent of the communes, and it took a Supreme Court mandated dissolution of the party to regain control and take over all the mandates. What has developed during the last six months is a rebirth of the opposition under the name of Candlelight Party with many members and leaders from the former CNRP. The burning candle was already the logo when Sam Rainsy founded the Khmer Nation Party in 1995, which was renamed as Sam Rainsy Party three years later, and the candle was used as well after the merger with the Human Rights Party as CNRP. Obviously, the reborn opposition has attracted young and low-income voters with a balanced social program and promises to protect Cambodians against forced evictions at the hands of real estate, mining, or agricultural corporations. This is a real fear of many Cambodians and it was the special concern of the Human Rights Party and its former chairman Kem Sokha, who is still being silenced by a prolonged lawsuit for alleged treason and attempts to topple the government. Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, is not too happy with the Candlelight Party, saying that it plays into the hands of the CPP. The results of the election next week will show how strong the opposition party really is.