Foreign minister Prak Sokhonn said that in engaging with external partners, ASEAN needs to maintain its centrality, both in words and in deeds, amid rising geopolitical competition among major powers while focusing on the principles of openness, transparency and inclusiveness.

Sokhonn made the remarks at the plenary session of the 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM), the meeting of the Commission of the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Interface Meeting with ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) Representatives, held in the Indonesian capital Jakarta on July 11.

In a press release, Sokhonn further emphasised the need to further deepen regional economic integration through free, fair, open and inclusive trade among ASEAN member states and with external partners.

“In addition, ASEAN needs to explore new sources of growth such as digitalisation, green transition, technology and innovation in order to make ASEAN future-proof and future-ready,” he said.

The plenary session was held under the theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” with a focus on ASEAN Community building efforts in relation to the region’s evolving architecture, and with the priorities of Indonesia, the bloc’s rotating chair, centred around the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

The ministers highlighted the significance of upholding ASEAN centrality and unity in the bloc’s engagement with external partners, and exchanged views on regional and international issues of common concern and interest as well as other pressing issues that warrant joint attention and response.

They focused on the strategic importance of safeguarding peace, security, stability and prosperity in cooperation with all external partners. ASEAN-led mechanisms remain the fulcrum in facilitating constructive dialogue and cooperation.

Him Rotha, a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), said achieving the necessary middle ground was difficult as the member states were inclined to separate interests and different priorities.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said ASEAN centrality is very important in counterbalancing any threat of conflict and competition between China and the US in a new cold war.

The press statement released after the meeting reiterated the commitment to maintaining Southeast Asia’s staus as a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone and free of all other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as enshrined in the ASEAN Charter.

Sokhonn emphasised the merit of adopting a “first-come-first-served” approach for the signing of the Protocol to the SEANWFZ Treaty without reservations to encourage other Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) to follow suit.