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Kin Phea: Kingdom needs to act as referee, maintain amity in international spats

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Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. Heng Chivoan

Kin Phea: Kingdom needs to act as referee, maintain amity in international spats

With Cambodia set to take over the ASEAN chair and host the ASEAN Summit in 2022, there are a number of prominent issues the Kingdom will need to take the lead on, including the crisis in Myanmar, tensions over the South China Sea and the growing geopolitical superpower rivalry between China and the US.

The Post reporter Ry Sochan sat down for an interview with Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, to talk about the roles Cambodia will have to play regionally and internationally in order to successfully steer ASEAN through the coming year.

How do you see Cambodia’s image on the international stage developing in 2022 and beyond?

Cambodia’s image on the international stage is developing positively – and I’d say remarkably so – and that’s partly due to its recent role hosting major meetings which it has managed to do in a highly organised and competent fashion that defies stereotypes about developing nations.

That includes the ASEM13 and all of its attached gatherings and it’s a positive sign for Cambodia’s success playing host to the upcoming ASEAN summit, as far as image goes.

Cambodia’s roles in both international and regional affairs have increased with the nation’s assertiveness and level of confidence in matters of diplomacy.

As we all know, in the past Cambodia was torn asunder by civil war and after that we were battered about as “collateral damage” of proxy wars between two superpowers and their competing ideologies. Cambodia was surrounded by aggressive ideological influences, both politically and economically.

But after 1993, in the modern period, Cambodia has been able to gradually improve its image, increase its prestige and expand its roles on the international stage by demonstrating that our nation is stable, peaceful and on a fast track for economic growth.

Cambodia’s reputation has been further enhanced by its contributions to regional and global affairs such as peacekeeping missions, humanitarian gestures and demining assistance, mostly under the auspices of the UN and these contributions may be small compared to the major powers. But because Cambodia is still developing, the obviously generous nature of even relatively small acts makes them greatly appreciated.

How can Cambodia maximise the benefits gained by hosting the ASEAN Summit next year?

It is an opportunity for Cambodia to demonstrate that its human resources and institutional capacities have been significantly upgraded and modernised in recent years, allowing us to pull off one of the world’s biggest diplomatic meetings smoothly and with aplomb. That means we’d better execute and do things right, of course, but I fully expect that will be the case.

Since joining ASEAN, Cambodia has chaired ASEAN twice, first in 2002 and then in 2012. And so 2022 will be Cambodia’s third ASEAN chair and it will provide a rich opportunity for the country to highlight its political and social progress, peace and development.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen joins the ASEAN-China special summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue and relations in November. FOREIGN MINISTRY

We’ve come such a long way since 2002 or even 2012 and we need to get ready to showcase that and present a positive image to the international community whose representatives will all be gathered here.

What does Cambodia need to do to ensure the ASEAN summit is a success?

Cambodia needs to consistently respect and implement the ASEAN Charter and act as a facilitator, respecting the core principles, roles and centrality of the bloc. Cambodia needs to strive to prevent the use of ASEAN’s mechanisms and institutions as weapons that other nations can pick up and use to fight their diplomatic skirmishes with each other.

We must coordinate effectively with our fellow ASEAN members to be able to remain observers rather than players in other nations’ games so we are not used as their pawns, individually or collectively.

In short, Cambodia needs to work closely with ASEAN dialogue partners on common interests and practical benefits while avoiding any agendas that lead to misunderstandings or do not actually bring any benefit to the peoples of ASEAN.

What will Cambodia need to achieve in order to consider its time as ASEAN chair successful?

Cambodia must try to resolve the crisis in Myanmar, which is a heated issue in ASEAN. And it must do so with the participation of all of the parties to the conflict in Myanmar itself. I won’t say Cambodia must succeed one hundred per cent in this endeavour, merely that we must make a credible and serious attempt to deal with it.

Ignoring or standing idly by while your next-door neighbour’s house is engulfed in flames and burns to the ground would never be viewed as an example of good leadership and certainly not friendship. It would be appallingly negligent, and foolish besides,because we must do everything we can to put those flames out before they begin to spread.

Cambodia needs to make ASEAN the core of its efforts with Myanmar after making some initial inroads with the current regime there. One encouraging sign in all of this is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s announcement of his trip there almost immediately upon taking up the ASEAN chair. He clearly understands the stakes and this mission is well-suited to his talents and experiences.

What other issues regionally or globally should Cambodia attempt to address as ASEAN chair?

Some of the major issues facing the region are the same that are facing the world at present: The Covid-19 pandemic, post-pandemic economic recovery and on a longer timeline, climate change.

Disasters like pandemics are best handled through multilateral mechanisms and that gives Cambodia an opportunity to promote the foundational philosophy of its foreign policy while solving real and pressing problems. All countries in the region and the world must work together to fight the virus in the spirit of multilateralism and the economic recovery also requires multilateral approaches.

As for the issue of the South China Sea, Cambodia needs to urge all of the parties involved to adhere to the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea and accelerate the pace of negotiations on this issue to ensure a peaceful settlement based on dialogue and consensus. We must discourage all involved parties from engaging in any posturing, provocations or escalations.

Again, Cambodia may not solve that conundrum completely in 2022, but we can make legitimate progress and demonstrate our seriousness as a nation.

Given the escalating geopolitical rivalry playing out in the region between the superpowers – China and the US – what position should Cambodia take?

Both Cambodia and ASEAN need to maintain a very fine balance of interests in order to take advantage of the two major initiatives on offer from each side: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Indo-Pacific Initiative. Both can bring benefits to Cambodia and ASEAN but we need to avoid taking either nation’s side in a way that could alienate one or the other.

That is why ASEAN has come up with the ASEAN Vision on the Indo-Pacific policy as a compromise between the ASEAN members. ASEAN and its members do not want to be in a situation where they have to be forced to choose between BRI and the Indo-Pacific initiative or between China and the US.

China and the US have both done a great deal to help Cambodia’s development post-1993. And both – in the past – have also done harmful things that their leaders today no doubt regret and would emphatically disavow. But that’s history. Today, we should try to work with and get along with both of them to achieve maximum benefit – without compromising our sovereignty – because each of them has a lot to offer.

What else can Cambodia bring to the table to further ASEAN’s agenda in 2022?

Cambodia has become a key player in the stabilisation of ASEAN-China relations.

In 2012 and 2016, Cambodia was willing to do a great deal of work to maintain the stability of ASEAN-China relations because at the time things were much more volatile and though some accused Cambodia of bias in favour of China, in actuality Cambodia was the steady hand providing balance and keeping things from spinning out of control.

Now, our extremely productive and positive relationship with China today can continue to help bridge the divides between China and ASEAN. Cambodia must keep a cool head about things and act as a referee rather than combatant in any regional spats and we can thereby help maintain amity between all parties.

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