As the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings kicked off in Phnom Penh on August 3, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on other ASEAN member states to support his initiative to establish an ASEAN “Green Deal” to tackle climate change.

In his opening remarks at the high-level meeting, the premier also called for support in establishing a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) secretariat in Cambodia to effectively coordinate implementation of the free trade agreement.

On contentious regional issues, Hun Sen said the security, economic and humanitarian crises in Myanmar had challenged ASEAN unity and solidarity and shaken the region’s stability, while the Russia-Ukraine conflict has complicated not just relations within Europe, but also within ASEAN.

“The war has caused serious economic disruptions, exacerbated problems with food and energy security and – worse yet – threatened to divide the world once again while the issues of climate change and its related disasters and other traditional and non-traditional security challenges are still present as ever,” he said.

On climate change, Hun Sen said that ASEAN has been putting forth various policy solutions to tackle the existential threats and environmental degradation, but the responses remain sector-specific and uncoordinated.

Therefore, he said, ASEAN needs to go further by leveraging all of the different national strengths found within the bloc and provide a platform for cooperation among member states as well as with external partners.

“It would be good if ASEAN would consider establishing an overarching framework, an initiative that I would label an ‘ASEAN Green Deal’, that enables our region to make a gradual transition towards a green future that is sustainable, resource-efficient, resilient and competitive economically,” he said.

Hun Sen suggested that the “ASEAN Green Deal” cover a wide range of areas such as infrastructure, energy, manufacturing, consumption, agriculture, transport, environment, and finance, with technology, innovation and circularity being the enabling factors.

“I would welcome opinions from any ASEAN member state on how we could make this a reality,” he said.

He added that more measures are needed to recover from the impacts of Covid-19, although various initiatives have been established, including the RCEP.

RCEP – a free trade agreement among the 10 ASEAN member states and five other Asia-Pacific nations of Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand – came into force in January.

“Cambodia is ready to host the RCEP secretariat. We have even thought of where in Phnom Penh the secretariat should be located, while we are working to formulate our detailed proposal.

“I hope Cambodia can win the support of our fellow ASEAN member states, as well as all of the RCEP participating countries, when we submit our proposal officially,” he said.

The 55th AMM and related meetings touched on various aspects ranging from pandemic recovery progress to rising challenges and the way forward for the ASEAN Community-building project in the future.

One of the most pressing issues regionally – the crisis in Myanmar – was discussed in further detail by the premier. He said the current situation there is seemingly worse than it was prior to when the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus (5PC) was reached in April of last year, with the ongoing conflict aggravated further by the recent executions of four opposition activists.

He noted that Cambodia and ASEAN have spent a great deal of time and energy on the Myanmar issue while braving many difficulties and being subjected to much criticism during the process in order to help a fellow ASEAN member and its people come to a negotiated political solution. Despite those difficulties, he said both will continue to endeavour to provide their assistance in ending the fighting there.

Hun Sen emphasised, however, that this must be done in a manner that does not place ASEAN unity at risk.

Prime Minister Hun Sen makes an opening speech at the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ (AMM) and related meetings on August 3. Hong Menea

In his opening remarks, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn noted that the next three days would present an opportunity for participants to deliberate on key issues pertaining to the progress made in line with ASEAN Community-building efforts, the way forward to make a strong recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic as well as cooperation with external partners.

He said the AMM would also touch on regional and international issues, especially with regard to the pressing security challenges that risk destabilising regional peace and stability.

The 55th AMM and related meetings are being attended by a global “who’s who” of top-level diplomats, such as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – although it has not yet been confirmed whether Lavrov would attend the meetings in-person or virtually.

After his arrival, on the morning of August 3, China’s Yi paid a courtesy call to King Norodom Sihamoni, according to local media reports, while his US counterpart Blinken began the long journey to Cambodia on August 2, outlining his itinerary on Twitter.

“En route to Cambodia, the first stop in my travels to the Indo-Pacific and Africa. In Phnom Penh, I look forward to participating in the US-ASEAN ministerial meeting to reiterate our support for a unified ASEAN. From there, I will go to the Philippines, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda,” Blinken tweeted.

As of press time, no results or official statements regarding the meetings had been released, but according to Hun Sen, it was expected that six more countries would sign the “Instrument of Accession to Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC)” later that same day.

In a move that was apparently unrelated to the scheduling of the AMM, Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan for meetings with its top leadership on August 2, much to China’s dismay and consternation.

The House Speaker is one of the top-level leadership positions in the US government and is officially second in line of succession to the presidency.

Speaking at a press conference, Cambodia’s foreign ministry secretary of state Kung Phoak said the Taiwan issue could also be discussed by the ASEAN foreign ministers with a focus on finding a means of calming the situation.

“I think the ASEAN foreign ministers will take advantage of the opportunity to discuss and find common ground for ASEAN to contribute to the facilitation of diplomacy and express our view that all parties must ensure that the situation in Taiwan is secure and stable by preventing it from escalating into a conflict among relevant stakeholders,” he was quoted as saying by local media outlet Fresh News.

With regard to the situation in Myanmar, Thong Mengdavid, a research fellow at the Asian Vision Institute’s Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies, said the situation had not improved as evidenced by the application of the death penalty against four political activists, which had angered all of the opposition groups in the country. He said it was apparent that the Myanmar military leaders had decided to exercise their power rather than listen to outside sources of reason.

“Therefore, the solution to Myanmar can get better or worse depending on the situation there, but ASEAN might need more time to find ways to enforce or make mandatory what were previously suggestions,” he said, referring to the 5PC.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said Myanmar military leaders did not seem to possess the goodwill, commitment and honesty required for implementing the 5PC.

“So, it has now become necessary for [ASEAN] to re-examine what mechanisms they should use to impose penalties so that the Myanmar military leaders will soften their attitude towards resolving this crisis,” he said, adding that the bloc should change its methods, mechanisms and strategies now and consider switching tactics from carrots over to sticks.