SINGAPORE - Former top Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan on Thursday (Oct 29) dismissed claims by a group of Cambodian diplomats that he is acting as an "agent" for a foreign power.
A group claiming to be made up of retired and active Cambodian diplomats had hit back at Mr Kausikan over remarks he made at a webinar last Friday (Oct 23), in which he observed that Cambodia and Laos are "teetering precariously on the edge" of entrusting their agency to an external power or trying to be passively neutral.
In an unsigned open letter published Tuesday on Cambodian pro-government news website Fresh News Asia, whose owner openly declares his support of China, they criticised Mr Kausikan's "barrage of misleading and flawed claims", among other things.
In response, the retired diplomat said: "Being (as they point out) 'senile and forgetful', I cannot remember what this is about. But even my addled wits cannot take seriously an argument that contains the phrase 'Anyhow, back to the substance...'.
"What were they saying before? Nonsense? I cannot take this rubbish seriously," added Mr Kausikan, who was permanent secretary at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
During the webinar at the 35th Asean Roundtable organised by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Friday, he had said that neutrality does not mean lying low and hoping for the best.
True neutrality means "knowing your own interests, taking positions based on your own interests and not allowing others to define your interests for you by default", he added.
During the roundtable, Mr Kausikan noted that Asean had for the first time in its history failed to agree on a Joint Communique in 2012, because the then Cambodian foreign minister refused any compromise on the South China Sea issue.
China has overlapping claims with Asean members in the disputed waterway.
He also noted that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen later said supporting China was "Cambodia's political choice".
This betrayed Cambodia's lack of understanding of how the 10-member association works, he said.
"We are an inter-state and not supra-national organisation. No member is required to give up its sovereign right to define its national interests as it chooses.
"Cambodia's right to make its own political choices was never at issue. What was at issue was whether Cambodia had in any degree taken the regional interest into account when making that political choice."
He also said that should Cambodia and Laos make the wrong choices, Asean as a whole will be confronted with difficult choices too.
"We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight (other members)."
His remarks drew a sharp response from the Cambodian diplomats. In an open letter published on Cambodian news website Fresh News Asia, they wrote that it is contradictory for Mr Kausikan to postulate that Asean is an inter-state and not a supra-national organisation, while at the same time promoting the idea that some member states should be expelled from the regional grouping.
"Somehow, he seems to forget or pretends to forget that Asean has never been designed to retain a supra-national authority to dictate the economic, political, strategic direction of its member states," they said.
The Cambodian diplomats also criticised the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute as a platform for "wolf warriors" to promote a narrative that Cambodia is China's vassal state.
Cambodia is viewed by international analysts to be one of China's closest allies in South-east Asia.
The term "wolf warrior", named after an action film, is often used to describe aggressive moves by Chinese diplomats to defend China's national interests.
The institute's deputy director Terence Chong told The Straits Times that it does not wish to respond to an open letter by writers who do not believe that it warrants signatories.
He said as an independent research centre, the institute examines long-term trends and challenges facing the region.
"To do so, we allow individual researchers and invited speakers the freedom to give their own views and insights based on their analysis of the issues at hand.
"We believe in providing this platform to enable and facilitate candid assessments... in order to deepen our understanding of the region and its dynamics."