Cambodia, the latest member of Asean, has come a long way despite concerns in 1999 that its economy was underdeveloped and it could not play catch-up with other member states. Now, 19 years later, Chheang Vannarith writes that Cambodia has hugely benefitted from its Asean membership.
On April 30, 1999, Cambodia formally became the tenth member state of Asean after years of negotiations. Three Cambodian foreign ministers were involved in the negotiations, namely Prince Norodom Sirivudh, Ung Huot and Hor Namhong.
After acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1995, Cambodia became an Asean observer from 1995 to 1996. Cambodia initially agreed to become a member of Asean in 1997, together with Laos and Burma, but it was postponed for two years due to domestic political violence.
At the accession ceremony, dressed in his traditional Khmer attire, the then foreign minister Mr Hor Namhong stressed that Cambodian membership created a new chapter in Cambodia-Asean ties. He said that Cambodia was committed to actively participating in regional cooperation with the aim of strengthening Asean unity and development. Other Asean foreign ministers warmly welcomed the membership of Cambodia and expressed their determination to work together to promote peace and prosperity in the region.
“The realization of ‘Asean-10’ has not only a symbolic significance, but also immense implications for the future of our region. With mutual respect and equality, we have turned our diversity to our advantage and pulled together to advance our common interest in strengthening peace and stability in our region. The Kingdom of Cambodia’s membership will be a substantial contribution to this endeavour,” stated the then secretary-general of Asean Rodolfo C. Severino.
Mr Hor Namhong was quoted as saying, “Asean will bring us more investment, more commercial exchange. Asean as a whole will be a very big market for Cambodian products.” The BBC correspondent in Phnom Penh reported at that time that “Cambodia may find membership more of a challenge than an opportunity – it lags way behind many of its more developed neighbours and will need to undertake a range of economic and administrative reforms”.
It is now a positive sum game for Cambodia. Nineteen years on, the country has hugely benefitted from its Asean membership – from economic opportunities through to regional integration for the maintenance of peace and security, utilising trust-building mechanisms and collective responses to tackle regional security challenges and issues. Cambodians, now, have more opportunities to learn about and know their neighbours through education, travel, and joint cultural activities.
One key disappointment Cambodia had with Asean was failure of the regional grouping to prevent Cambodia-Thai border conflicts in 2008 and 2011, despite official requests from Phnom Penh for intervention.
But overall, Asean has helped promote Cambodia’s national prestige and interests. The Kingdom’s international role has been enhanced due to the country’s adherence to Asean norms and diplomacy. Cambodia values highly the principle of non-interference, respect of equal sovereignty and partnership, consensus-based decision-making, economic opportunities deriving from trade and investment liberalisation and facilitation, efforts in narrowing the development gap within the region, and external partnership with dialogue partners.
However, Cambodia’s image was significantly damaged in 2012 when the 45th Asean Foreign Ministers meeting, in Phnom Penh, chaired by Cambodia failed to issue a joint statement. The Cambodian chair was accused of undermining Asean unity on the complex South China Sea issue with China. These accusations have been rejected by the Cambodian government.
Since the 2012 Phnom Penh fiasco, Cambodia has been labelled as a client state or Trojan Horse of China.
Forging Asean unity and consensus on the South China Sea issue has been one of the top challenges for the present Asean chair, Singapore. At the 32nd Asean Summit in Singapore last month, some commentators again accused Cambodia of trying to ‘water down’ strong words criticising China’s activities in the South China Sea.
Despite what Cambodia’s detractors have tried to portray, using the media, the Kingdom has been consistent in its approach towards the South China Sea. In 2016, Prime Minister Hun Sen elaborated on Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea. He said, “Cambodia has, again and again, become a victim of the South China Sea issue because of unjust accusations. I hope that countries unconcerned will not suffer injustices as Cambodia did.”
Cambodia “regards the South China Sea issue as a matter between countries concerning sovereignty, and not ones between Asean and China […] only the countries concerned will be able to resolve this problem. Asean is not able to work on behalf of those countries’ concerns,” he added.
Differences over the South China Sea aside, Cambodia has been actively advocating for an open and inclusive regional architecture. Speaking at the 32nd Asean Summit, Mr Hun Sen suggested that Asean should speed up implementation and strengthen institutional coordination, while adapting to changes.
With China and the US in each other’s crosshair, Asean urgently must take bold steps against the wave of protectionism by accelerating intra-regional trade particularly in concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of this year.
To seize opportunities deriving from deepening regional integration, Cambodia needs to strengthen its soft infrastructure such as bureaucratic capacity and human capital, and improve its hard infrastructure such as transport networks and logistics. Innovation in both the public and private sectors is critical for Cambodia to catch up with other Asean member countries.
Cambodia can potentially leapfrog if it has right policies, right skills, and the right leadership to spearhead innovation and take advantages of the digital revolution. This needs political vision, will and leadership.
Chheang Vannarith is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.