Dr Chheang Vannarith is a consultant for the Southeast Asia program at the Nippon Foundation, and the co-founder and chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS). Yesterday he delivered the think tank’s first public lecture, on the results of the special ASEAN-US summit in Sunnylands, California. After the lecture, Audrey Wilson spoke with him about the summit’s takeaways for the region – and for the Kingdom
You called Prime Minister Hun Sen’s positive remarks following the summit at Sunnylands “very general”. What do you think were the primary takeaways of the summit, for Cambodia in particular?
I think for Cambodia there is more interest in the economic operations between ASEAN and the US. The priority for the Cambodian government is trade-investment relations. Both countries [the US and Cambodia] have a strong interest in promoting economic investment – that is a takeaway. But in terms of issues of political security, the Cambodian government remains sceptical of US intentions and interventions, especially in the South China Sea. There are certain misunderstandings on that sensitive issue. Cambodia wants direct consultation between the claimants to negotiate in the disputes. That is more effective than bringing external actors to intervene in bilateral disputes.
There is still a gap [in Cambodia] when it comes to human rights and democracy, and with respect to the South China Sea. But in international relations, we need to define what is the national interest. The priority for the US and ASEAN in terms of their relationship is political security and economic operations. Human rights and democracy would be number three after those.
There was much talk of protests and counter-protests in the lead-up to the summit. What do you make of the turnout of Cambodian-Americans at Sunnylands?
It was a mix of Southeast Asian people living in the US – they came together with Thai-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans to demand the protection of human rights and democracy. The president of the US had already brought the issue to the table. But the US can’t force other ASEAN members to enforce it. It’s a sovereignty issue. I think the protest [at Sunnylands] was quite moderate, if you compare it with the protests in New York and Paris – comparing Hun Sen to Pol Pot, for example, maybe it’s too much. That is why there was no reaction here in Cambodia. That is a good thing: a win-win for the protesters and the ruling party.
You highlighted climate change in your lecture, especially regarding management of the Mekong River. In this respect, what can ASEAN offer Cambodia, the country you labelled “most vulnerable” to climate change?
ASEAN has not paid enough attention to the Mekong River because only Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are interested – again, it’s similar to the South China Sea. Cambodia does not have the capacity to adapt to climate change. We need support from the US and Europe, and we want to see China play a more significant role. Technical support is important, especially to train farmers to adapt to a new weather pattern – like drought – and to prepare for food-security issues.
How do Cambodia’s domestic policies need to change in order for the Kingdom to become a “more responsible” member of ASEAN, as you put it?
I think first we need to promote democracy and human rights, to promote good governance. We also need to have a strong consensus among the political parties on foreign policy. The CPP and the CNRP do not have this kind of dialogue. To be a responsible member of ASEAN means that we need to contribute ideas and that we need to implement ASEAN policy – like the ASEAN charter. Cambodia has not effectively integrated regional policy into its national agenda. For instance, with the issue of migration, we need to respect the rights and dignity of migrant workers. With environmental policy as well, there has not been a strong link between ASEAN policy and national policy. We need to reform our institutions in order to better implement the regional policy.
Interview edited for length and clarity.