On Monday, Cambodia celebrated its 20th anniversary of membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations. To mark this historical milestone, Khmer Times talks to Chheang Vanarith, president of secretariat at the Asian Vision Institute, about the Kingdom’s journey within the regional intergovernmental organisation over the past two decades.
KT: As an expert on this topic, can you briefly describe Cambodia’s journey within Asean?
Mr Vanarith: Twenty years ago, on April 30, 1999, Cambodia officially became a member the Association of South East Asian Nations, becoming the last member following several negotiations. As a matter of fact, we should have become a member in 1997, like Myanmar and Laos, but it was delayed due to the existing internal conflicts. Despite their differences, the member states have forged a good relationship in working together to achieve common goals as a unified Asean family. That was a historic day, on which all 10 Southeast Asian nations were united. Over the past two decades, Cambodia has played an important role in fulfilling its obligations in accordance with its values, which do not favour a single political system, including the chairmanship of Asean Summit in 2002 and 2012.
KT: When Cambodia first joined Asean, its people expected economic prosperity and increasing income from this intergovernmental organisation. How has Asean contributed to the country’s development and economic growth in the past two decades?
Mr Vanarith: When it comes to Asean’s impact on Cambodia’s economy, there has been both positive and negative impacts, but more so on the positive side. The main negative impact is the government’s loss in revenue due to the tariff cut in response to the creation of the Asean Economic Community. However, this economic integration allows Cambodia to attract more investors that want to benefit from the Asean region, which is home to a total population of 650 million, as a large single market and production base. This situation bears potential for Cambodia, as a country with a population of only 16 million and a relatively low number of the middle-class, to benefit from. Being in Asean motivated Cambodia to adopt reforms in many areas, including customs, public service, and legal system, to facilitate development.
Meanwhile, Asean helps maintain regional stability and security, which allows for a positive atmosphere for development. The number of border disputes has gone down and Asean member states do not have to be worried about being invaded or face armed conflicts, as all member states respect one another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
KT: In Asean, there are rich countries such as Brunei and Singapore, but there are also poor nations such as Myanmar and Cambodia. Is the economic gap still a big challenge among Asean member states in making decisions?
Mr Vanarith: Yes, it is. It is the reason why Asean has pushed for regional economic integration to narrow this gap. However, Asean itself is not yet capable of assisting its underdeveloped member states. Therefore, it also has to count on its partners such as China, Japan, and the US. The poor or limited infrastructure is another challenge to narrowing the gap, especially when all the developed countries are heading toward digitalisation.
KT: What is the current status of trade or investment from other Asean countries in Cambodia, compared to from other countries?
Mr Vanarith: Overall, it could rank second or third as both business partners and investors. Cambodia’s biggest import market is Europe and the US. Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s capability to attract investors is very limited compared to other Asean countries, no thanks to its underdeveloped infrastructure. However, Cambodia could benefit from the supply chains in the region and relying on the region’s emerging economies, such as Vietnam and Thailand.
KT: How has being a member of Asean affected Cambodia’s foreign policies?
Mr Vanarith: Cambodia considers Asean a ‘pillar’ in its foreign policies in the region. Cambodia is a small country, and a small country formulates its foreign policies based on multilateralism and international laws. Asean is also a shield that protects Cambodia’s economy, security, and stability.
KT: What has Cambodia done to contribute to regional security?
Mr Vanarith: There is one big contribution that I want to mention. It is about the removal of landmines. Cambodia, as the Chair of the 2012 Asean Summit, initiated the Asean Landmine Centre. When it comes to landmine removal, Cambodia is the country with the most experience. Thus, it can share its experience and knowledge with other Asean nations through this centre and can even help the United Nations in removing landmines in other countries.
KT: Speaking of Cambodia’s Asean chairmanship, there is a controversy. In 2012, Cambodia, as the chair of the Asean Summit, was widely criticised for not being able to reach a joint statement on the issue of the South China Sea. Many even accused Cambodia of being “China’s pawn” in the region. Can you explain that?
Mr Vanarith: It is true that Cambodia was criticised by Asean member states, especially by the Philippines and Vietnam, which are involved in the South China Sea dispute. Many media outlets attacked the Kingdom for that, even calling it a pawn of China in Asean. However, if we look at it strategically with a long term basis, we can see that Cambodia is still independent and does not side with any one in particular. The issue of the South China Sea dispute, I believe, is not a very big issue faced by Asean, and in the next few years, Asean and China will be able to reach an agreement on the COC (Code of Conduct), which could be signed in 2022, when Cambodia is the chair of the summit again.