Since becoming a member of ASEAN in 1999, Cambodia has chaired two previous ASEAN summits – in 2002 and in 2012. The Kingdom is currently hosting its third summit from November 10-13.
Independent political observers The Post spoke with said they believe that Cambodia has played an excellent role in mediating regional and global political crises as chair of ASEAN.
Although Cambodia is a small country, it has been able to negotiate with more powerful nations over contentious issues related to the South China Sea, Korean Peninsula, Myanmar crisis and Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Despite some turbulence this past year, Cambodia has used the ASEAN forum to realise economic gains for the region by moving free trade deals forward such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Puy Kea, a correspondent for the Kyodo News Agency, said Cambodia’s role as ASEAN chair raised the Kingdom’s profile on the international stage as it is acting as a representative for the entire ASEAN region through other forums.
He said Cambodia has played an important role as a mediator in the internal conflicts of member states, such as the crisis in Myanmar, and now has the opportunity to take its seat next to the US as the co-chair of the ASEAN-US summit. Even US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he said, has praised Cambodia and commended it on its leadership of ASEAN this year.
Kea added that through its chairmanship of ASEAN, Cambodia was invited to chair the ASEAN emergency foreign ministers’ meeting on the Myanmar crisis in the Indonesian capital Jakarta at the end of October. Cambodia has also been invited to attend the upcoming G-20 Plenary Meeting in Bali, Indonesia, where it will be able to make its own statements.
“Cambodia as the chair of ASEAN for the first time in 2002 was successful, but the problem in 2012 was that two countries insisted on using confrontational language about China in the joint statement that Cambodia objected to, which affected the Kingdom’s reputation and caused issues with certain countries, but aside from that it went well,” he said.
Kea said the South China Sea dispute seems to have diminished somewhat this year, but the Korean Peninsula remains a contentious issue as North Korea continues to test missiles and make belligerent statements.
However, as Kea sees it, Cambodia and the world are facing three major problems: The Myanmar crisis, the potential China-Taiwan conflict and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the press conference on the outcomes of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings that Cambodia hosted earlier this year, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn acknowledged that the three-day meeting from August 3-5 could not immediately resolve major regional and global issues as some may have desired.
Vann Bunna, a researcher at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), said Cambodia has had successful negotiations on the South China Sea by issuing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which is a precursor to establishing the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
Bunna noted that in 2012, Cambodia as the ASEAN chair was criticised for not being able to issue a joint statement for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history and was accused of bias towards China on that same South China Sea issue.
He said that for the third ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodia has to address the crisis in Myanmar, the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China.
“For the Myanmar crisis, it is difficult for Cambodia because the military regime lacks desire for cooperation and show an unwillingness to resolve this political crisis. The Ukraine conflict, which is causing global food crisis as well as disrupting the global economy, and the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China are also issues that these powers could use this forum to discuss,” said Bunna.
However, he also explained that although Cambodia is a small country, it could use its ability to mediate crises to allow the powerful countries to sit down for negotiations through the ASEAN forum.
Bunna sees three positive aspects of Cambodia being in ASEAN: Foreign policy, economic gain and the strengthening of diplomatic capacity.
First, Cambodia has the ability to sit and talk with the powerful countries in the region and the world with equal footing.
Second, Cambodia can use the ASEAN forum to make free trade agreements for the bloc like, most recently, the RCEP.
Third, Cambodia can build and strengthen its diplomatic capabilities to keep pace with crises and the ever-changing global situation.
“Imagine if Cambodia was not a member of ASEAN, it would have no chance to sit in front of the two superpowers to discuss issues, and those powerful countries would not value Cambodia much,” he said.
Cambodia is the most recent country to become an ASEAN member state after it joined in 1999, but that looks like it is about to change with East Timor now appearing to be a lock to join in the near future – another order of ASEAN business that will be addressed, at least in part, at this summit.