Cambodia calls for the enhancement of multilateralism

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the restoration and enhancement of an open and inclusive multilateral system and rules-based international order at the second Asia Pacific Summit in Phnom Penh.

His statement clearly illustrates that multilateralism is one of Cambodia’s foreign policy objectives and interests. The question is how this small state can allocate resources and efforts to advance multilateral system, while it is constantly distracted by domestic politics.

Multilateralism and rules-based international order that have underpinned international peace, stability and prosperity for the past seven decades, are under threat due to rising protectionism and unilateralism.

The world is at an inflection point, as global power transition and diffusion are fast evolving. This transition carries with it, high geopolitical uncertainty and risk. Structural and geopolitical power competition between the US and China will continue to shape an evolving world order.

Although competition between a status quo power and a rising power is inevitable, there is no solution in sight to cool down the tensions between the US and China. The unfolding trade and technological war between the US and China has dampened global economic outlook.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) for instance has estimated that the global economy would face its slowest growing pace since the financial crisis a decade ago. Growth in advanced economies would slow down from 2.3% in 2018 to 1.7% in 2019. Global growth rate, according to the World Bank, is expected to decrease to 2.6% this year.

As an open and small economy, Cambodia is very much vulnerable to external shocks and the global economic recession. To mitigate risks, the Kingdom has adopted a diversification and hedging strategy and proactively strengthened multilateral system. But the results have been very limited due to the lack of strong stewardship in trade negotiation and market expansion.

Although Cambodia is trying to assume an international role to hopefully save and advance multilateral system, it has met with a myriad of challenges. Complex domestic politics, limited resources, institutional capacity, and human capital have constrained Cambodia’s proactive international engagement.

Cambodian stakeholders are preoccupied with addressing the requests by the European Union (EU) over the preferential trade treatment under Everything-But-Arms (EBA). To maintain EBA status is one of Cambodia’s foreign policy priorities at the moment.

Next year, Cambodia will assume the chairmanship of the 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)- it will be the largest international event to be hosted by the Kingdom. It is quite costly and a challenge for a small state to organize the summit especially concerning the logistics and infrastructure.

The main theme of the 13th ASEM will be announced next month at the 14th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Madrid, Spain, on 15-16 December. ASEM foreign ministers will discuss ways and means to strengthen “effective multilateralism”.

ASEM is an important platform to connect Asia with Europe. It will be an opportunity for Cambodia to further strengthen multilateralism for the interests of both regions and the world at large.

In 2022, Cambodia will be a rotating chair of ASEAN. It will be the third time that Cambodia hosts ASEAN after becoming a full member of this inter-governmental organisation in 1999. Regarding ASEAN as a security shield and a catalyst for regional peace and prosperity, ASEAN is the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy.

Promoting a rules-based international order within the framework of ASEAN is quite challenging though given there is no common standard definition on what constitutes a rules-based order. Arising questions are who creates the rules, what are the rules, and who enforces the rules.

Generally, from the ASEAN perspective, a rules-based order refers to the respect of the UN Charter, ASEAN Charter, Treaty of Amity of Cooperation, and other international legal instruments that all ASEAN member states are signatories.

The tricky, sticky point is that some countries try to strategically link the concept of rules-based order with the maritime disputes in the South China Sea with the aim to impose legal and diplomatic pressures on China. Such strategy presents more challenges to ASEAN in promoting a rules-based order.

It would be a smart foreign policy if Cambodia continue to invest more resources to advance an open, inclusive and effective multilateral system, and strengthen rules-based international order that serve the interests of all countries regardless of their size and power status.

Small states have agency. They can affect international system through multilateral norms creation and diffusion.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, also the future Prime Minister of Singapore, said in May this year that, “Asia will have to redouble its efforts to strengthen the rules-based, multilateral trading system that has underpinned its growth.”

Khmer Times, 20 November 2019 (

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