Although the global and regional environments are getting more complex and uncertain, Asean remains a relevant regional actor to shape regional order through Asean-centric multilateral systems.
Under the theme “Resilience and Innovation”, the Singapore chair has successfully concluded the 33rd Asean summit and related summits last week with the adoption of seven documents to reinforce regional cooperation to address emerging regional issues such as climate change, terrorism, and smart city development.
In his closing remarks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted main achievements of Asean under the chairmanship of Singapore. In terms of practical security cooperation, Asean established the “Resilience, Response, Recovery” framework to strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism and adopted multilateral air guidelines to manage unintentional encounters between military aircraft.
On the economic front, Asean has expressed firm commitment to uphold a free, open and rules-based multilateral order and determination to conclude Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2019. In addition, to further connect the peoples and cities, the Asean Smart Cities Network has been established with the development of action plans for 26 pilot cities to create innovative urban solutions to improve peoples’ lives.
He added, “We must continue to uphold the Asean-centric frameworks, and engage our partners to keep our region open and inclusive. We must stay on the course of economic integration and pool our talents and resources to improve our peoples’ lives. And despite our individual national interests, we must continue to think regionally and invest political capital in the Asean project”.
The official theme for the Asean chairmanship next year is “Advancing Partnerships for Sustainability”. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha pledged to further deepen regional connectivity and digital Asean for sustainable development. Some of the key issues to be discussed will be on how to empower and connect micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) through technological advancement.
Promoting partnership between Asean and dialogue partners and international development partners is critical in mobilising both financial and technical resources to realise regional projects and sustainable development goals. Cambodia for its part has pushed for regional cooperation and partnerships to realise United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and proposed the agenda on “Combating Counterfeit and Substandard Medicines”.
Smart city development will continue to be one of the main agenda items next year. Cambodia has requested that all stakeholders continue discussion on the implementation of the Asean Smart Cities Framework 2018 and the integration and harmonisation of this regional framework with a national master plan on smart cities.
Asean Centrality will remain to be the key issue that require firm political will and commitment from each Asean member state to strengthen the central role of Asean – both diplomatic and strategic roles, in shaping regional architecture and managing major power rivalry. Concerns of the future of Asean Centrality have been on the rise especially amidst major power rivalry and competing regional initiatives particularly the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) versus US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept.
Cambodia, similar to other Asean members, welcomes all initiatives but with the conditions that they contribute to the strengthening of Asean Centrality and unity, and adhere to the principle of openness, inclusiveness, mutual complementarity, and rules-based international order.
Asean has refrained from taking a position on either the BRI or FOIP although each Asean member has expressed its own view on the two initiatives. Cambodia for example has embraced the BRI and expressed support to a Japan-proposed FOIP. It needs to be noted that the geopolitical implication of both initiatives is a matter of concern for Asean members as they don’t want to be forced to take sides.
Under the chairmanship of Thailand next year, Asean might articulate its own version of the Indo-Pacific. For instance, it might come up with its own name and concept in order to secure the central role of Asean in shaping its own regional architecture. Some have suggested using “Asia-Indo-Pacific” instead of FOIP in order to make the concept more inclusive and open.
Concerning the sustainability issue, the Thai chair aims to create the Asean Center for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue and Asean Center for Active Ageing and Innovation. These two centres are expected to generate and share knowledge on sustainable and inclusive development. Environmental degradation, social exclusion, and inequality of opportunities and incomes are interconnected issues and they need to be holistically addressed.
Narrowing the development gaps remains a challenge for Asean. Cambodia has called for the more developed Asean members and dialogue partners of Asean to widen and deepen their support mechanism, especially in human resources development and capacity building, to assist CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) to catch up with other Asean members. Thailand has a key role to play in helping connect the supply chain within the Mekong region.
There is a need to further build synergies between Asean and sub-regional mechanisms to better use resources and scale up the impacts of regional and sub-regional projects. Sub-regional mechanisms include the Greater Mekong Subregion, Mekong River Commission, Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, Mekong-ROK Cooperation, Mekong-Japan Cooperation, Lower Mekong Initiative, Lancang-Mekong cooperation, Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), and Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle.
Chheang Vannarith is senior fellow and board member of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP)