Published: 10:47, November 8, 2022 | Updated: 10:47, November 8, 2022
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ASEAN keeps to the course of centrality
By Yang Han in Hong Kong

At Cambodia gatherings, bloc will avoid taking sides, promote recovery: experts

At the ASEAN summit and associated meetings this month the bloc is likely to try to maintain its centrality, avoid taking sides between major powers and promote global recovery and reconciliation, experts say.

As chair of the 10-nation bloc for 2022, Cambodia is hosting the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit and related summits in Phnom Penh from Nov 10-13. A notable issue is the competition among major powers, especially Russia, the US and its allies over the Ukraine conflict, said Chheang Vannarith, president of the think tank the Asian Vision Institute in Cambodia.

US President Joe Biden will be in Cambodia on Nov 12 and 13 for the US-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit, the White House said on Oct 28. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been invited to attend related summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Cambodian media reported.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is expected to visit Cambodia for the signing of the Instrument of Accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen talked by phone with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier.

Chheang said Cambodia had put the Russia-Ukraine conflict on ASEAN's agenda because of the close attention it has received from the bloc's member states, dialogue partners and the media, even though Cambodia wanted to focus more on economic recovery.

"The geopolitical … storm is very strong now," he said.

ASEAN summits are usually good for a show of unity and reaffirming common goals, but underlying tensions among the bloc's dialogue partners have been growing, said Joel Ng, a research fellow and deputy head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

"ASEAN inherently trusts its external partners, but some of these external partners don't trust each other," Ng said. Whether ASEAN can put together strongly worded statements and persuade those external partners that distrust in each other is destabilizing for all will be among the key things to watch, he said.

Nisit Panthamit, director of the Center of ASEAN Studies at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, said that with many sensitive issues to be dealt with at this challenging time it is important for the regional grouping to find ways to enhance collaboration, including in security, and promote a healthy recovery and social reconciliation.

Implementation plans

For example, Nisit said, the bloc may put forward implementation plans for the five-point consensus, a road map agreed to in April last year for a peaceful resolution of the Myanmar crisis.

Experts said there is a strong ASEAN consensus on putting more pressure on Myanmar, and that political representatives from Myanmar will continue to be excluded from the ASEAN summits.

For the incoming ASEAN chair of Indonesia, Ng said, the biggest challenge will be maintaining the bloc's relevance beyond its shores as ASEAN's centrality is predicated on being useful to the most powerful countries.

Ng said it is increasingly common to see some powers sidestep ASEAN to pursue other goals because some of the goals — usually related to the strategic competition where the intention is to exclude others — cannot be reconciled with the bloc's values of inclusivity and openness.

ASEAN's method of resolving disputes remains a valuable model amid increasing tensions, and the bloc can raise the bar of entry for those wanting to take part in ASEAN-led processes, he said.

"Finding the middle powers who support this and are also wary of destabilizing superpower rivalry will be the key," Ng said.

Tang Zhimin, director of China ASEAN Studies at the Panyapiwat Institute of Management in Bangkok, said he expects to see various statements and declarations from the summits on new rules and norms on strengthening the ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity to push back great power confrontation, and build up trade architecture such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

"ASEAN must endeavor to remain an attractive and dynamic hub for trade and investment," Tang said.

The bloc may promote economic recovery and collaboration with its partners, especially China, in areas such as enhancing connectivity and narrowing development gaps.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will be among the heads of government and state to be in Cambodia for leaders' meetings on East Asian cooperation.

This year marks the 55th anniversary of ASEAN and the first year of building the China-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership.