The Khmer Times, 10 August 2016
Asean celebrated its 49th birthday two days ago amid increasing global and regional uncertainties and the rising doubts over the central role of Asean in the region.
Asean has been under attack for its failure to reach a united front on the South China Sea disputes, the sovereignty disputes between China and four Asean members.
Regardless of the challenges and shortcomings, Asean has achieved remarkable results over the decades. Thanks to Asean, Southeast Asia has become more stable and peaceful after decades of conflicts and confrontation. Asean is the foundation of peace, stability and development in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Asean is resilient and will be able to navigate through the wave of uncertainties and tensions, particularly those caused by the rivalry between China and the US. All Asean members are fully aware that if they don’t stick together they all hang separately.
On August 8, 1967, five foreign ministers from Southeast Asia officially announced the establishment of Asean, with the aim of promoting a peaceful and prosperous group of Southeast Asian nations through the deepening of regional cooperation, respecting justice and the rule of law and adhering to the United Nations Charter.
In 1971, Asean adopted a declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality to maintain and strengthen its neutrality in the power competition and rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
In 1976, Asean adopted a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which is the most important legally binding treaty in the region. The treaty lays out fundamental rules for international relations, including mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity.
The signatory states to the treaty shall respect the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means and renunciation of the threat or use of force are other principles of Asean.
As a small state, Cambodia is structurally constrained to have few foreign policy options either aligning with major powers or relying on international institutions. After gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia chose its own diplomatic path of permanent neutrality.
However, Cambodia succumbed to external pressures, failing to maintain its balance and falling into the Indochina War, becoming a victim of the Cold War.
The Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 opened a new chapter for the Kingdom to end decades of civil war and embrace the principles of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and a neutral foreign policy as the foundations of national reconstruction.
The constitution clearly stipulates that “Cambodia shall be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.” To strengthen its neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, Cambodia needs strong regional ties and institutions. There is a political consensus among different political parties that Asean is the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
The spirit and principles of Asean, particularly equal relationships, non-interference and consensus-based decision making, are in line with Cambodia’s foreign policy interests and principles.
Asean promotes the habit of regional cooperation and collective leadership in regional institutional building to maintain peace and stability, enhance economic cooperation and integration and foster collective identity building.
Asean helps Cambodia protect its sovereignty and independence against its two big neighbors, which are historically perceived as a core traditional threat to the country.
Asean provides a strategic and diplomatic space for Cambodia to effectively engage with other countries and regions, develop the economy through regional cooperation and strengthen Cambodian cultural identity.
The future of Asean and that of Cambodia is intertwined. Cambodia will not be able to realize its vision to become a high-income country without a strong and relevant Asean.
To maintain its relevance, Asean needs to ensure that the spirits and principles of Asean are respected, particularly the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation that all Asean member states and dialogue partners of Asean are signatories to.
Asean needs to double its efforts in promoting an inclusive regional community building and a people-centered Asean to ensure that the people of Asean fairly benefit from regional projects.
The cost of having a development gap is high. A multi-tiered Asean is prone to regional instability and disintegration. Economic inequality leads to development disruption, political instability and social conflicts.
Asean needs to further assist the less developed members, especially in building the leadership and institutional capacity to reap the benefits of regional integration.
The Asean people need to be empowered and enabled to realize their potential in contributing to national development and regional community building.
Promoting multi-stakeholder partnership dialogues among the state, private sector and civil society is vital to an inclusive and open Asean.