In his forward-looking statement to commemorate 20th anniversary of Cambodia’s membership in Asean, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that, “In the context of increasing geopolitical rivalry and uncertainty, mainly instigated by the heightening competition between superpowers, it is all the more crucial for Cambodia and other Asean member states to remain united so that collectively they can address these arising risks and challenges”.
“As a bloc, Asean can ward off adverse impacts caused by the constantly-changing global geopolitical landscape and uncertainties. It can build an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based international order and ensure that everyone will fairly benefit from regional integration and the community building process,” he added.
Regarding Asean as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, Cambodia has proactively and responsibly participated in the Asean Community building. Mr Hun Sen himself has a long, broad and deep knowledge of Asean, as he is the longest serving political leader in the region.
“Harmonizing its national interests with those of Asean, striking a reasonable balance amongst external partners, and reinforcing connectivity to realize a people-centered community will be the salient characteristics of Cambodia’s regional integration strategy,” stated Hun Sen.
Cambodia is concerned about the future of Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region where major powers are competing to maintain or regain their supremacy. Regional order obviously is under stress, facing high volatility and uncertainty.
The power shift from the US-centric regional order to a regional order driven by multiple actors is unfolding. It creates a paradigm shift for international politics in the Indo-Pacific, which is a complex region where state and non-state actors dynamically interact.
Regional order is collectively shaped by major powers, middle powers, and a coalition of small states. The small states in Southeast Asia generally view Asean as an essential multilateral institution to get major powers enmesh in international norms and practices that serve the interests of both stronger and weaker states.
The Asean-driven regional security architecture is multi-layered and inclusive, which is more sustainable than a regional order that is defined by the balance of power. The Asean spirit- referring to mutual consultation and consensus-based decision making- and a rules-based Asean are the bedrock of regional peace and stability.
Promoting a rules-based regional order- the the respect and enforcement of international laws and rules in governing inter-state relations- is critical future survival of Asean and its member states.
Every country regardless of size and power benefits from a rules-based order. The key challenge is that regional state actors across do not have a common view on what constitutes a rules-based order, depending on their historical experiences and memories, core national interests, and the perception of national role within the international system. In addition, the enforcement of the rules and norms is weak due to fluid regional multilateral institutions.
Promoting effective multilateralism has been one of the key foreign policy objectives of Southeast Asian countries, as these small and medium-size states facing mounting challenges and pressures to adapt and adjust their foreign policy strategy amid heightening geopolitical competition.
To deal with geopolitical uncertainties, Asean is compelled to adjust its external relations to ensure that it remains relevant, be part of and successfully emerge from a complex and unpredictable global security and economic systems.
Although regional order is largely shaped and moulded by major powers, small and medium-size states do matter to a certain degree. There are three pathways for Southeast Asian states to shape regional order: engaging major powers by implementing hedging strategy unilaterally and multilaterally, strengthening rules-based multilateral system, and creating and diffusing norms of peaceful settlement of disputes.
Southeast Asian states can influence regional order through strategic engagement with major powers and strengthening regional institutions. The key question is how these states make themselves more relevant. Economic success, good governance and diplomatic capacity largely define their relevance.
Asean is perceived as a reliable security shield as well as the catalyst for regional economic prosperity and dynamism.
Asean has capacity to socialize and diffuse normsand institutionally and diplomatically encourage major powers to behave peacefully and responsibly.
Asean enables Southeast Asian states to better exercise their diversification and hedging strategy.
Asean also assists small states like Cambodia to better connect and integrate its economy with the region, which in turn reduce the risk of overreliance on major power(s). Cambodia through Asean can elevate its international engagement and role.
Chheang Vannarith is President of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI).