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Sokhonn gives talk on ASEAN future

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Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn delivers a lecture on Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship during the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute forum held via videoconference on Monday. MFAIC

Sokhonn gives talk on ASEAN future

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn said that in the coming years, ASEAN will find it increasingly difficult to maintain its unity while also resolving its internal issues.

Sokhonn also noted that ASEAN centrality will be under increasing pressure due to the geopolitical rivalry between the superpowers as they seem to have chosen Southeast Asia as one of their arenas of competition.

He made the remark at the 23rd ASEAN lecture on Cambodia’s Chairmanship of ASEAN 2022 organized by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on January 3 via video conference, a recording of which was obtained by The Post on January 5.

Sokhonn said maintaining ASEAN centrality, unity and resilience amid the growing power competition would require the bloc to strive for a future whereby it has an even stronger capacity to manage the healthy growth of partnerships and constructive discourses despite all of the prevailing tensions.

“The coming years will be even more challenging for ASEAN to maintain our unity and cohesiveness as the ASEAN 10 in order to solve emerging institutional problems and pursue our community building process of ASEAN integration,” he said.

ASEAN has been dealing with internal disputes and controversy after Myanmar’s military declared a state of emergency on February 1 due to perceived irregularities in the 2020 general elections and transferred legislative, judicial and executive powers from the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi to Defence Services commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Subsequently, the ASEAN Summit in October 2021 was held with Myanmar absent and only nine member states attending while Brunei was chair.

However, Prime Minister Hun Sen – as the chair of ASEAN in 2022 – is slated to visit Myanmar to meet with Min Aung Hlaing to ease the country’s crisis and to restore ASEAN from 9 to 10 countries.

The prime minister’s mission to Myanmar departs on January 7 and he is scheduled to return to Cambodia on January 8, though his diplomats pursuing a resolution to the crisis may remain for a longer period there as needed.

Sokhonn said that while the immense pressure from the geopolitical rivalry between the superpowers of China and the US – which also involves almost all other major powers picking sides to one degree or another – would prove difficult to resist, no ASEAN member state wanted to choose a side in the rivalry.

“We all hope that the two greatest powers on the planet can build a relationship between them that is stable, predictable and healthy,” he said. “But the emerging trend toward a bifurcation of the world order in every dimension from politics to the economy, trade, technology and cyberspace is a matter of growing concern to all.”

However, while acknowledging the mounting geopolitical rivalry in the region, Cambodia reaffirmed its commitment to seeking to strengthen ASEAN centrality in an ASEAN-led architecture to maintain peace, security and prosperity.

“We will focus on the reinforcement of multilateralism and multilateral processes through ASEAN-led mechanisms and concerted actions that shall remain open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based,” Sokhonn said.

He said Cambodia also aims to encourage external partners to support the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and engage with ASEAN in four cooperation areas under that policy document – namely, maritime cooperation, connectivity, the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and economic integration.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, told The Post that he found Sokhonn’s statement praiseworthy and that he considered it a positive breakthrough that Cambodia was taking a realistic view of regional politics.

“The international political situation will be further complicated and intertwined with the rivalry of the great powers, which already has a profound effect on regional organisations like ASEAN as well as individual countries in the region and the conflict could force us all to grab onto either superpower like a shield to protect our interests if things go too far,” he said.

A good option for small countries is to strengthen multilateral mechanisms like ASEAN to get some breathing room rather than be sandwiched between the superpowers while they vie for influence, Vannak said.

However, he noted that the superpowers will look to establish alliances with individual ASEAN member states for their own strategic interests – without caring much as to whether the resulting polarisation breaks the bloc apart – and this will pose a danger in the long-term.

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