Asean the beacon of multilateralism

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Amid the risks and uncertainties stemming from anti-globalisation sentiment, rising protectionism, unilateralism, and populism, Asean stands out to be the beacon of open and inclusive regionalism and the advocate of multilateralism.

Asean leaders have taken a clear, united stand against the protectionist policy by forging ahead with deepening regional economic integration. The retreat of the US from amultilateral system has affected the role, influence and image of the US in the region. In other words, the US has become less relevant strategically and economically to Asean.

Asean leaders are having their annual summit in Bangkok, together with the dialogue partners, to express their political commitment and strategic intentions as well as to propose related policy proposals to deepen regional integration and community building.

The US-China power competition, rising protectionism and unilateralism, climate change, and disruptive effects of the fourth industrial revolution have forced Asean to respond and adapt.

The key issues facing Asean are how can this inter-governmental organisation respond to the US-China trade and technological war, sustain peace and stability in the South China Sea and, work together to realise sustainable development goals.

On the trade agenda, Asean and its six FTA partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand) have reached more than 90 percent of the agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). There is  high expectations for the negotiation to be concluded by the end of this year or at least early next year.

India has been identified as the most challenging negotiating partner. At the informal meeting of the RCEP negotiators last weekend, India raised new demands to protect certain industries. The meeting suspended its press conference last Saturday due to outstanding issues that need to be resolved.

RCEP, if realised, will significantly contribute to the flow of goods and services in the region as it accounts for about half of world’s population and one-third of global GDP.  In 2012, under the chairmanship of Cambodia, ASEAN kickstarted the process of RCEP negotiation. It has been seven years now.

Cambodia has been supportive of open and inclusive multilateral trading system, including the early conclusion of RCEP.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the plenary session of the 35th Asean Summit that “ ASEAN must attach high priority to addressing the issue of non-tariff barriers and making greater efforts in improving trade facilitation to achieve two main targets:  10% reduction in the cost of trade by 2020 and doubling the intra-ASEAN trade by 2025”.

Noticeably, China has taken a proactive role on the trade agenda. In their joint statement, Chinese and Asean leaders stress their commitment to uphold “a rules-based, open, transparent, non-discriminatory, and inclusive multilateral trading system as embodied in the World Trade Organization (WTO)”. They also stand united against growing protectionist and anti-globalisation sentiments.

On the South China Sea dispute, Asean and China have reached the first reading of a single draft on the Code of Conduct (COC). It is expected that the negotiation on COC will be concluded by 2021, almost twenty years after issuance of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

Cambodia supports peaceful settlement of the disputes in the South China, while working towards trust and confidence building between Asean and China. Cambodia has been consistent in calling for the parties concerned to sustain dialogue, exercise self-restraint, respect international law, and explore cooperation opportunities.

The ongoing tension between China and Vietnam over the Vanguard Bank has casted doubts that Asean and China could reach a meaningful and legally-binding COC in the near future. Vietnam has firmly stood up against China and been trying to convince other Asean member states to collective exert pressures on China.

On sustainable development goal agenda, Asean has established the ASEAN Centre for Sustainable Development Studies and Dialogue yesterday with the aim to promote sustainable development cooperation in the region and enhance the complementarities between the Asean Community Vision 2025 and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The centre will also serve as a regional platform to encourage research and studies as well as build capacities of Asean members and promote dialogue and cooperation on sustainable development within Asean, and between Asean and external partners, including the implementation of concrete cooperation projects relating to sustainable development.

On climate change, Asean and its dialogue partners have reaffirmed their commitment to double their efforts to build international partnership to realise international commitments on climate change.

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