The priority for Cambodia’s foreign policy this year is to ensure a smooth and successful 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a vital institutional bridge connecting Asia and Europe. It is a huge challenge indeed for this small state to organise such a big international forum, ranging from logistical problems to substantive matters.
The main task of the chairperson is to facilitate constructive dialogues in order to reach consensus on certain international issues and hopefully delegates can reach agreement on concerted efforts and practical cooperation to address those issues.
Under the theme “Strengthening Multilateralism for Shared Growth”, Cambodia is trying to build strong international consensus on revitalising multilateralism which is under increasing threat because of mounting protectionism, unilateralism and populist politics. Moreover, the return of great power politics is undermining the multilateral system.
As a small state, Cambodia’s foreign policy interest and objective is to contribute to international peace and prosperity through the enhancement of an open, inclusive and effective multilateral system and the rules-based international order centering on the UN Charter.
The adherence to the principles of non-interference and equal sovereignty based on mutual respect, mutual interest and mutual trust and the fair application of international law to peacefully settle disputes and conflicts are the foundations of the rules-based international order.
Cambodia believes that peace and prosperity need to be inclusive- which means that every nation state and individual person must be part and parcel of world peace and no one should be left behind in reaping the benefits of economic globalisation and growth.
Peace, security, cooperation and prosperity are increasingly intertwined. Hence, we need to develop a holistic approach to deal with emerging global issues such as climate change, inequality, terrorism and violent extremism.
Inclusive growth or shared prosperity has become the key global development agenda. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and Sustainable Connectivity have been high on the agenda of ASEM-related meetings.
Obviously, 2020 is a challenging year for multilateral institutions such as ASEM and Asean to stay relevant by forging common worldview and coordinating policy and action to address global issues.
The Cambodia chairperson will need to find ways to navigate through such difficult times. Surely, Cambodia is not interested in touching on sensitive and controversial issues, but other ASEM members will raise those issues of their national interests. As the chair of the meeting, Cambodia needs to accommodate everyone’s interests, while thriving to promote unity and solidarity among the members.
The key security issues that will be likely discussed at the upcoming ASEM meetings, at both the foreign ministers’ meeting and leaders’ meeting, relate to the escalating tensions in the Middle East, renewed tension on the Korean Peninsula and maritime security especially with regard to the South China Sea.
The world is becoming more fragile and volatile, evidenced by complex and unpredictable structural competition between major powers, escalating tensions between some countries and emerging security hotspots across the globe. Some analysts even predict a new Cold War is in the making.
Small and weaker states are becoming more vulnerable to changing global geopolitical landscape and external pressures, and some might fall into geopolitical traps and become fertile ground for proxy conflicts or war between major powers.
The escalating tensions in the Middle East after the US President Donald Trump ordered the strikes to kill Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani last Friday is a cause of security concern. Iran pledged to have “harsh revenge” and the US threatened to destroy 52 sites in Iran including cultural and heritage sites.
With the passage of time, the military confrontation between the US and Iran is highly likely. The geopolitical landscape in the Middle East will significantly change in coming days and weeks because both sides are willing to take military measures.
The increasing tensions in the Middle East invites Russia to further assert its engagement in this conflict-prone region. Russia will take more concrete measures to support its allies in the Middle East especially Iran to counter the US and its allies. Consequently, proxy conflicts and wars are going to expand both horizontally and vertically.
In the Asia-Pacific region, North Korea announced its intention to resume nuclear and missile tests last week after the failure of diplomatic talks with the US. Learning from how the US deals with Iran, Kim Jong-un is compelled to have strategic weapons – nuclear weapons – as deterrence.
The unfolding trade and tech war between the US and China is structurally complex. It will not abate anytime soon. The US-China rivalry will be a long-term issue. The US will continue to take measures to check the rising power of China. And China is adjusting its foreign policy posture, especially through economic reforms and military modernisation, to deal with the pressures from the US.
Closer to home, the situation in the South China Sea is poised to get renewed tension this year because the claimant states are going to be more assertive in claiming their sovereignty in the disputed water. The negotiation process on the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea is facing a roadblock, as the negotiating parties have different views on the substances of the negotiating document and the role of extra-regional powers, especially the US, in this disputed water.
The South China Sea has become the contesting ground for power competition between China and the US. Multilateral mechanisms such as Asean have a limited role to play in managing this structurally complex power rivalry.
Chheang Vannarith is President of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI).