The year 2022 is just around the corner and Cambodia will soon undertake the role of ASEAN chairmanship for the third time. This would be a moment of pride and also pressure.

ASEAN has always been an integral part of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Despite being a latecomer, Cambodia has proven to be an active and constructive supporter of the ASEAN Community-building. The country’s boldness in assuming her first ASEAN chairmanship in 2002 after merely three years of her participation in this regional grouping demonstrated a strong political will and unwavering commitment of Cambodia’s top leadership towards regional integration and multilateralism. Such commitment remains unchanged but ever more resolute.

We are proud to be an active actor in the ASEAN Community that is very relevant in the global community of nations. Despite criticism of being a “talk-shop”, countries outside the region often look for ASEAN for platform to address concerns in the region, for investment destinations, for trade partners, and for all other benefits that functional multilateralism can offer.

As a matter of fact, despite challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, ASEAN is probably one of the most active regional bodies that are making efforts to provide innovative and regionally coordinated solutions to these unprecedented challenges. The establishment of the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund, the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF), the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement (TCA) Framework, and the proposed establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED) and the development of the ASEAN Public Health Emergency Coordination System (APHECS) are key evidence of pro-active policy coordination works across the region that is probably unseen in other regions of the world.

As an ASEAN citizen, we should be proud of that instead of sinking into the talk-shop narrative of ASEAN.

So then, what is next for Cambodia’s chairmanship in 2022?

First and foremost, it is important that we need to identify key mega trends affecting the region. Covid-19 will be here to stay, and countries around the world will continue to struggle on how to rebuild economies and businesses that are almost at the brink of collapse. Operation wise, the prospect of having physical ASEAN meetings is still gloomy even if Cambodia strongly desires for physical meetings in 2022.

Great power rivalries will persist, and the emerging bifurcation of politics, trade, economy, cyberspace, and technology is a growing matter of concern.

Within the region, traditional security concerns, namely the possible emergence of civil strife, complex land and maritime border issues, will continue. Non-traditional security issues such as natural disasters, cyber-crimes, cross-border crimes, trafficking in persons, internally displaced persons and climate change will intensify the magnitude of challenges that ASEAN has to deal with.

Of course, Cambodia is not too naive to rule out that we would succeed or fail in making a historical turn for any mega trends when our chairmanship ends. This is where pragmatism and idealism clash. Cambodia will pursue idealism in a pragmatic manner, but we also hold that idealism should not be the end to itself. We also hold that Cambodia’s chairmanship is not a standalone chairmanship to be judged by oversimplification of specific success or failure. Cambodia’s chairmanship is obviously a continuation of various chairmanships, and any achievement or progress is credited to all the 10 members.

This is where the ASEAN Way comes into play in the maintenance of ASEAN Centrality and relevance within the challenging and dividing mega trends. The fact that ASEAN has continued to be cohesive in one piece is because we maintain the modus operandi of ASEAN Way that cherishes unity in diversities, consensus building, and dialogues and consultation in a discreet manner that is respectful to sovereignty and the principle of non-interference when addressing difficult issues. This is because ASEAN promotes unity for peace, cooperation, and development but not unity for confrontation.

Looking at these mega trends, it is one of the most important priorities for Cambodia in 2022 that we shall continue to maintain and manage the situation/environment that is conducive for peace and stability to sustain, and prosperity to be enhanced. Like every other ASEAN chair, we always strive to find issues that bind us together, instead of those that are dividing us. Not that we are shying away from problems, but simply because ASEAN is trying to be practical in terms of how we should find ways to move forward. For instance, on superpower rivalry, practically there is not much that ASEAN can do. If both superpowers can find or help find agenda that can enhance their cooperation instead of accusations and demonisation, it would be a lot helpful for every ASEAN chair, or maybe it is a merely wishful thinking.

The other most important thing to do is to try to promote the “tangibility” of benefits for the people.

This is the effort to address the most basic yet difficult question from ASEAN citizens: “What are the benefits for having ASEAN Community?”

In identifying priorities for the Chairmanship 2022, we try to focus on how we could deliver tangible benefits for ASEAN citizens – something that are touchable and feel-able so that we can provide ASEAN citizens a strong sense of pride and hope for the future, and confidence for the wellbeing of generations to come with no one left behind.

Along this line, we are trying to look at how we can enhance that “tangibility” for the people through our actions on Covid-19, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, various free trade agreements, intra-regional trade, digital economy, as well as the enhancement of migrant worker protection and disaster management capabilities, climate change, railway connectivity, industrial connectivity, among others.

These are on top of the existing tangible benefits the likes of visa-free travelling, ASEAN highway connectivity, opportunities for youth exchanges and scholarships, infrastructure development, foreign direct investment, technical assistance and development cooperation from partners, etc.

We also try to ensure a proper balancing among and between the three Pillars, namely the ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Domestically, it is to ensure that we have everyone on board, taking the “whole-of-Cambodia” approach towards the undertaking of this historical chairmanship role. Regionally, it is to ensure that all benefits from the Community building efforts are being shared to all levels and sectors, and especially to the very ASEAN peoples that this regional grouping is mandated to serve.

Sim Vireak is strategic adviser at the Asian Vision Institute (AVI)