Published: 18:26, November 18, 2022 | Updated: 18:26, November 18, 2022
ASEAN proves its relevance
By Yang Han in Hong Kong

Cambodia gatherings highlight bloc’s importance as world players seek stronger partnerships

Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen (Left) hands over the gavel of the ASEAN Chair to Indonesian President Joko Widodo as the next ASEAN Chair at the closing ceremony of the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits and Related Summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Nov 13. (ZHU WEI / XINHUA)

Fifty-five years since its founding, ASEAN has proved its continuing importance and appeal to the international community with the announcement of a new member and with world leaders attending its summits in Phnom Penh.

With Cambodia as its chair this year, the bloc concluded its 40th and 41st summits and related summits on Nov 13, the group’s first in-person official gatherings since the COVID-19 pandemic, to advance the theme of ASEAN centrality and regional economic integration. 

“Within these four days, we have had a comprehensive and productive discussion on the way forward to strengthen ASEAN centrality and our value in relation with our external partners, particularly at a time when the world is facing the fast evolving complex regional and international issue,” Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen said at the closing ceremony of the four-day gatherings.

On Nov 11, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a statement that they agreed in principle to admit Timor-Leste as the 11th member. 

The bloc, founded in 1967, currently comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. 

Timor-Leste will be granted observer status and allowed to participate in all ASEAN meetings. An objective criteria-based roadmap for its full membership will be formalized and submitted at next year’s summit for adoption. 

The ASEAN gatherings, which began on Nov 10, saw Hun Sen welcome guests from the United Nations, the United States, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Australia and New Zealand, as well as different parts of Asia.

During the summits, ASEAN formally elevated its ties with India and the United States to comprehensive strategic partnership, one year after its first two such partnerships were formed with China and Australia. 

Speaking at the 19th ASEAN-India Summit on Nov 12, Indian Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar hailed the deep cultural, economic and civilization ties that have existed between India and Southeast Asia from time immemorial. 

In a joint statement, ASEAN and India reiterated the commitment to enhance their cooperation in various areas including maritime activities, counter-terrorism, transnational crimes, cyber-security, digital economy, regional connectivity, smart agriculture, environment, science and technology, and tourism. 

ASEAN and the US said the elevated partnership reflects the outcomes of the 9th ASEAN-US Summit in 2021 and the 2022 ASEAN-US Special Summit. Attending 10th US-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, US President Joe Biden announced new initiatives to support the pillars of the ASEAN Outlook: maritime cooperation, connectivity, the UN sustainable development goals, and economic cooperation, said a White House statement.

At the ASEAN-UN Summit on Nov 11, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said ASEAN member states are well-placed to advance human rights, freedoms and a strong global economy. 

Leaders from ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea agreed on Nov 12 at the 25th ASEAN Plus Three Summit that they will boost cooperation for sustainable development, trade and investment, as well as regional peace and stability. 

At the China-ASEAN summit on Nov 11, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said China and ASEAN should enhance their partnership to build consensus on development and cooperation and jointly overcome challenges to build a close China-ASEAN community with a shared future. 

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol voiced hope for swift reactivation of cooperation mechanisms between Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, while Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed Tokyo’s intention to steadily promote initiatives, including in new areas such as the digital economy and resilient agriculture, based on the new ASEAN Plus Three Cooperation Work Plan starting next year. 

Henry Chan, visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said it is good to see that tangible topics such as free trade and the digital economy have been discussed at the ASEAN Plus Three Summit.

Noting that China proposed that the ASEAN Plus Three members should improve crisis response capacity, including promoting the effectiveness of the multilateral currency swap arrangement known as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralism, Chan said the proposal is timely as Southeast Asian nations are facing a currency depreciation challenge amid rising US interest rates.

It is also important that China and ASEAN have announced the official launch of negotiation on a new round of upgrade of their free trade area, because, if it materializes, it will promote enhanced regional cooperation, said Chan, referring to Chinese Premier Li’s speech at the China-ASEAN summit.

Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers also attended the ASEAN summit. ASEAN and Ukraine signed the Instrument of Accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia on Nov 10 to promote peace and cooperation within the region. 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country will enhance its cooperation with ASEAN countries and elevate their ties to a new level. UN chief Guterres urged the world to promote dialogues to resolve problems.

Russian Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US and NATO of prolonging the Ukraine conflict and also warned about the West’s drive to militarize Eastern Asia. “The United States and its NATO allies are trying to master this space,” Lavrov told a news briefing in Phnom Penh.

At the closing ceremony on Nov 14, Hun Sen handed over the gavel of the ASEAN Chair to Indonesian President Joko Widodo. 

Speaking at the ceremony, Widodo said, “ASEAN must become a peaceful region, and an anchor for global stability, consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy to any powers.”

And, the bloc “must be a dignified region, uphold the values of humanity and democracy,” he said, adding that “ASEAN should not let current geopolitical dynamics turn into a new Cold War in our region”.

Myanmar did not participate in the summits as the bloc insisted that it will only invite non-political representatives from the country. 

While stressing that Myanmar is an integral part of the ASEAN, the group said little progress had been achieved in the implementation of the five-point consensus reached in April 2021 with Myanmar’s military regime.

The five-point consensus aims to end the conflict in Myanmar through peaceful resolution, after the military took power on Feb 1 last year. 

“There is a need for an implementation plan that outlines concrete, practical and measurable indicators with specific timeline to support the five-point consensus,” the bloc said, adding that ASEAN foreign ministers will be tasked with developing the implementation plan. 

Xinhua contributed to this report.