PHNOM PENH, Jan 3 (Reporting ASEAN)– The year 2019 marks the 20thanniversary of Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN. As a newer member, Cambodia has been striving to catch up with other older members, particularly in institutional reforms and human resources development. Public awareness of ASEAN remains limited due to the lack of public discourse and media coverage on ASEAN-related matters.
Cambodia’s interests and aspirations in ASEAN, which it joined in 1999, can be categorized in three sectors.
First, in the area of political-security interests, Cambodia views ASEAN as an important safeguard protecting its sovereignty and independence against foreign invasion and interference. ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) sets clear basic principles of international relations within the region – with emphasis on mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity, and the right of every state to be free from external interference, subversion or coercion.
Cambodia still believes in the security ASEAN provides in maintaining peace and stability in the region, although it was disappointed with ASEAN when this regional organization failed to address the border skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand in 2008 and 2011 due to the lack of consensus. Cambodia had invited ASEAN to mediate in the dispute, but Thailand preferred using the bilateral negotiation mechanism.
ASEAN is a cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodia is fully supportive of an evolving ASEAN-driven regional architecture and order.
Within the context of rising tensions and uncertainty resulting from geopolitical competition between major powers, particularly between the US and China, in Southeast Asia, ASEAN has become even more relevant. Cambodia regards ASEAN as an important shield to ward off the adverse impacts deriving from power shifts and power contestation. ASEAN helps Cambodia to diversify its strategic and economic partners as well as enhance Cambodia’s capacity to offset security and economic risks and uncertainties.
In 2012, the Cambodian Defense Minister proposed to his ASEAN counterparts the establishment of an ASEAN free of conflicts – due to the concern that internal conflict in some ASEAN member countries might lead to regional instability. He suggested that ASEAN consider creating ‘ASEAN Security Connectivity’ in order to better link security issues and security actors, which include both state and non-state actors, in order to better address complex regional security issues. However, these two proposals have not been realized yet due to a lack of leadership.
Second, in terms of economic interests, ASEAN is regarded as the driving force of regional integration in Southeast Asia and beyond. Through ASEAN, Cambodia is able to expand its economic relations with countries in the region and beyond. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is currently the most important multilateral trading system for Cambodia. Hence Cambodia is strongly supportive of the early conclusion of RCEP negotiations.
When it comes to Cambodia’s exports to the ASEAN market, these increased from a mere 4.3 percent of total exports in 2000 to 22.1 percent in 2017. This trend signifies the increasing market share of ASEAN for Cambodia’s exports. Although the percentage remains low, the ASEAN market holds great potential for Cambodian exporters.
Cambodia is interested in promoting synergies between sub-regional mechanisms such as the Cambodia-Lao PDR-Vietnam Development Triangle, Greater Mekong Subregion, and the Ayeyawady – Chao Phraya – Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) with ASEAN. Minilateralism, especially practical economic cooperation mechanisms, complements the regional integration process.
For Cambodia, the key challenge of regional economic integration lies in the development gap between the new and old ASEAN members. Therefore, narrowing this gap has taken center stage for Cambodia since it became an official ASEAN member. Thus, Cambodia has proposed to the older ASEAN members to put more efforts and resources into narrowing development gaps within the organization, particularly under the framework of the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI).
As ASEAN, under the chairmanship of Thailand in 2019, will focus on sustainable development, Cambodia is interested in building synergies between its national development plan and ASEAN’s sustainable development policy and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Achieving sustainable development goals by 2030 is the core development agenda and foreign policy objective of Cambodia, as it is in line with the Cambodia’s division of becoming a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050.
Acknowledging that the quality of growth matters more than the quantity of growth, the Cambodian government is adjusting its development model by focusing on sustainable development and inclusive growth. To implement such a shift in development paradigm, Cambodia needs support in capacity building from ASEAN and other international organizations, particularly in promoting governance innovation and linking trade and investment with sustainable development goals.
CULTURE AS SOFT POWER
Third, with regard to socio-cultural interests, ASEAN helps Cambodia promote and strengthen its national identity at the regional level as well as global level. Cultural identity has been one of the key national interests of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Rich in historical and cultural assets, Cambodia has comparative advantage in projecting its soft power within ASEAN through cultural diplomacy. In January 2019, the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) – whose secretariat Cambodia will host – will be launched. Cambodia is planning to institutionally connect the ACC with the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.
At the state level, regional integration has been identified as one of the key pillars of national economic development strategy since 1998, when Cambodia first introduced its five-year development plan called the Triangular Strategy. This strategy’s second pillar stresses the importance of regional integration in the country’s socio-economic development.
The five-year development strategy 2018-2023, also known as Rectangular Strategy Phase IV, mentions the opportunities deriving from ASEAN in terms of the absorption of foreign investments and expansion of export markets through “the promotion of industry and trade linkages, physical and institutional connectivity with the integration of regional and inter-regional production and supply chains”. Under the strategy, Cambodia also commits to realizing “the ASEAN goal of rules-based, people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN”.
Overall, Cambodia has reaped remarkable benefits from ASEAN over the last two decades. It regards ASEAN as the catalyst of regional economic integration and economic diversification, a shield to protect its sovereignty and independence, and a platform to promote its national identity and prestige. ASEAN is a cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodia is fully supportive of an evolving ASEAN-driven regional architecture and order. (Edited by Johanna Son/Reporting ASEAN-PMFI)
*Chheang Vannarith is president of Asian Vision Institute, due to be launched in 2019. The views here are his own. This analysis was done for the Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam (CLMV) Integration Series of the Reporting ASEAN media programme.