Cambodian diplomats and analysts have warned that the Kingdom will continue to face a series of serious challenges during its ASEAN chairmanship this year due to a number of escalating geopolitical situations that have already produced knock-on effects globally.

This year saw Cambodia take on the ASEAN chairmanship for the third time since its accession to the bloc in 1999, selecting “ASEAN ACT: Addressing Challenges Together” as the theme of its leadership.

Speaking at a workshop on “Cambodia’s Contribution to ASEAN Since its Inception in 1999” held on May 31 by the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn said the “current regional and international context necessitates the strengthening of shared commitment to ASEAN centrality, unity, and solidarity.

“It is furthermore crucial for ASEAN to consolidate its spirit of togetherness if we are to be effective in tackling our common, pressing challenges to ensure regional and global peace, security, and sustainable development,” the minister said.

In spite of the challenges, Sokhonn said, Cambodia will continue to draw on the ASEAN’s spirit of togetherness to consolidate efforts, internally within ASEAN as well as with ASEAN Partners, to achieve our goals of building a resilient ASEAN Community, in line with the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.

“I am confident that we can prove once again that we have the determination and capability to further strengthen and promote peace, stability, security, and prosperity in the region for the wellbeing of our peoples. That’s the true spirit of “let’s act together”,” he said, in a nod to Cambodia’s chosen theme for its chairmanship.

With seven months remaining as ASEAN chair, Sokhonn said Cambodia has been “motivated and inspired to work harder” to advance ASEAN community building in recognition of the bloc’s enduring spirit, as it celebrates its 55th anniversary this year.

He opined that Cambodia has contributed “robustly” to ASEAN’s efforts to maintain global peace through UN peacekeeping operations, and address the issue of landmines and explosive remnants of war, adding that the operationalisation of the ASEAN Regional Mine Action Centre was such testimony to the Kingdom’s significant contributions.

Sokhonn said Cambodia’s decision to join ASEAN near the turn of the century was guided by the bloc’s core principles of mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all its member states, as well as the stance it has steadfastly maintained of non-interference from external pressures.

“ASEAN’s consensus-based approach was also a determining factor [as it] allowed Cambodia to have an equal voice in regional and international fora, regardless of its small size or economic strength,” he said.

The foreign minister revealed that Cambodia last week successfully hosted negotiations between ASEAN and China on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC) in Siem Reap province, in person for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic.

As the result of that negotiation, he said, ASEAN and China have reaffirmed their commitment to working toward the early conclusion of the COC that is effective and substantive and in accordance with international laws, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Chhem Kieth Rethy – the minister attached to the Prime Minister and member of the AVI’s board of directors – said during his opening remarks that ASEAN has “proven to be adaptive, flexible and resilient, while navigating geopolitical turbulence and responding to major regional and global crises in recent years.

“We do not have a ‘big brother’ within ASEAN. We treat each other with mutual understanding, trust, and respect, based on shared interests,” he said.

He reiterated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s idiom that Cambodia’s taking on the ASEAN chairmanship this year was akin to “receiving a hot stone” – a high risk, low reward situation – given the emerging complex regional and international issues that have potentially serious cross-boundary implications and consequences.

Rethy said Cambodia is taking on a stewardship role to steer and navigate ASEAN through a turbulent period caused by geopolitical rivalries – one which has been compounded by looming energy and food crises, an ongoing climate change threat, and uneven post-pandemic socio-economic recovery.

“However, we are optimistic and determined to assume full responsibility to deliver, with the hopes of bringing ASEAN to new heights,” he said.

He added that ASEAN is regarded as the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy, and regarded the bloc as “a shield that protects the Kingdom’s national interests, largely defined in terms of peace, prosperity and identity.

“As a small but open country, Cambodia’s peace and prosperity cannot be detached from those of the region,” he said. “Guided by this worldview, Cambodia will continuously and earnestly strengthen ASEAN by contributing to its relevance, resilience and centrality to the region.”

Rethy urged trust, confidence and solidarity among ASEAN members as, he said, “we cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can constantly adjust our sails to reach our destination”.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, agreed that Cambodia was taking the ASEAN chairmanship at the time when the world was facing serious issues including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the crisis in Myanmar, as well as the South China Sea issue.

“On the Myanmar front, Cambodia is trying its best to implement ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus. At the beginning of the ASEAN chairmanship, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a trip to Myanmar, bringing a mixture of plaudits and criticism.

“Cambodia accepted that there was criticism but emphasised that its intention was to find a solution to the crisis in Myanmar and enable them to find peace,” Phea said.

The Kingdom will host two major ASEAN meetings later this year.

The first is the Second ASEAN Global Dialogue on Post-Covid 19 Recovery, a dialogue that will focus on the promotion of ASEAN as a post-pandemic climate-resilient community. Issues to be discussed include universal health coverage, small and medium enterprises’ digitalisation for sustainable and inclusive growth, and investing in human capital development for inclusive and sustainable growth.

The subsequent meeting will be the Second ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit, held under the theme “Building a More Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient Future: Unlocking Women’s Entrepreneurship in ASEAN”, and will seek to promote women’s roles in ASEAN’s post-pandemic economic recovery efforts.