SEAI Exclusive: His Excellency Dr. CHEUNBORAN Chanborey's Remarks at the 2023 Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update

HE Dr Chanborey CHEUNBORAN, Ambassador of Cambodia to Australia
Photo courtesy: Emir Syailendra


Of H.E. Dr. CHEUNBORAN Chanborey,

Ambassador of Cambodia to Australia and New Zealand

At the ANU Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update

Canberra, 1 May 2023



Development and security are increasingly intertwined as global politics is getting more tense and confrontational. This is because peace and stability are the foundation of prosperity. Worse still, countries, particularly small states, might face economic sanctions and even military punishment for their strategic mistake. Ukraine is a case in point. 

Southeast Asia is getting more attention and, unfortunately, pressure as United States (US)-China competition heats up. Therefore, it is argued that the peaceful and orderly environment in Southeast Asia of the past 30 years has come to an end and that countries in the region will inevitably face the dilemma of choosing a side on different issues, including security, technology, trading blocs, and regional production networks and supply chain. 

ASEAN Centrality, the foundation of Southeast Asia’s peace and prosperity, has lately been under attack as the regional grouping has been demanded to do more to address regional and international issues, like the Myanmar crisis and the war in Ukraine, and, more importantly, to contribute to the balance of power between US and China in the region. 

Moreover, the proliferation of Indo-Pacific (IP) strategies has put ASEAN in a strategic dilemma. On the one hand, ASEAN is an important gateway between the two most vibrant and dynamic regions, the Pacific and Indian Oceans. ASEAN hence stands to benefit from the promotion of the concept as being the “fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific region”. On the other hand, some ASEAN Member States (AMS) have expressed the concern that ASEAN Centrality might be eroding or diminishing; and ASEAN-led mechanisms that have been the bedrock of regional multilateralism might be marginalized.

Against all odds, ASEAN and its member states have consistently resisted the temptation that regional issues shall be reduced to contest between major powers in a zero-sum game. They have tried to ensure that external powers readjust this ‘zero-sum’ mentality when dealing with the region.They have also tried to convince the great powers to see the gains in providing ASEAN nations with the opportunities to promote cooperation and trust. 

As Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has argued, Southeast Asia is not “a mere theatre for great power competition”.Thinking so, she continued, “strips Southeast Asian Nation of their influence, dynamics and agency” and “the enduring and central institution of ASEAN.” 

Truth be told, any attempt to maintain an assertive unilateral approach to security across this vast region will be destabilizing; so are attempts to contain others. While coexistence among major powers will clearly contribute to regional peace and stability, other states and regional institutions must have a say, too, in the construction of regional order.

In this regard, ASEAN has tried to convince, to a certain degree with success, its dialogue partners to provide an alternative option to countries in the region rather than reinforce the existing binary choices. Moreover, despite its weaknesses, ASEAN Centrality has been a bedrock of regional multilateral diplomacy. Therefore, it is in the interest of all to help ASEAN to maintain and promote the principles of ASEAN Centrality by strengthening its unity internally, exercising neutrality and fairness externally, and being proactive in building an open, inclusive, rules-based regional architecture.  

To this end, external partners shouldbe genuine in embracing ASEAN Centrality. They cannot just pay lip service to the term, but need to value ASEAN-led mechanisms, respect ASEAN’s internal processes, and uphold its principles, rules, and norms. Arguably, there is no other alternative to drive multilateralism in Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific.

Equally importantly, although security is the prerequisite for development, it must not be the only priority. By and large, Southeast Asian countries do not consider security concerns to be the central factor in the region. In fact, ASEAN has attempted to de-securitize regional issues, as vividly illustrated by the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). 

As various IP strategies have been promoted, they (1) must provide benefits for peace and development, (2) must not target any third party; and (3) must respect and uphold ASEAN Centrality and the principles of the AOIP, particularly openness, transparency, inclusivity and a rules-based framework. 

In other words, it is imperative to engage all countries in the region and translate regional initiatives into mutual benefits, such as the cooperative delivery of public goods and the shared prosperity for the people in the region. Therefore, external powers should focus less on security and more on development and practical cooperation where the self-determination of small states is respected, not only in the conduct of their economic policy and social discourse but also in their foreign policy choices.

Cambodia has always subscribed to the above-mentioned premise. Economically, the Cambodian government and its non-governmental actorsare always pragmatic to fulfil priorities such as alleviating poverty, generating jobs for the population, improving the infrastructure, further integrating into the region and the world (especially ASEAN), and playing an important role in regional and international issues. 

To this end, Cambodia has adopted a nuanced approach based on (1) economic pragmatism, (2) independent foreign policy, and (3) rules-based regional and international order. Economically, the fact of the matter is that China, Japan and South Korea are the only partners that have had the wherewithal and resources to invest as much as $1 billion to $2 billion in projects in Cambodia. Other foreign investors, including the EU and the US, are very much private-sector driven and focus on the commercial sectors. In this context, Senior Minister SUN Chanthol says that “If Cambodian people are not given Big Macs, they must not be criticized for and stopped from receiving Asian fried noodles.” 

On the foreign policy front, the 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship has proved that Cambodia’s approach to the region and external powers is independent and balanced. This independent and balanced approach is also vividly illustrated by Cambodia’s foreign policy towards China and Japan. In contrast to the allegation that Cambodia had already become China’s proxy, Cambodia has promoted its bilateral ties with the latter’s regional rival, Japan, into a strategic partnership since 2013. Cambodia-Japan will be further elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership this year. 

Lastly, Cambodia’s strong advocacy for the rules-based regional and international order has been seen through her full support for an open, inclusive, and ASEAN-centric regional order. Moreover, Cambodia’s position on the war in Ukraine – among others, by co-sponsoring two UNGA resolutions to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine –goes beyond taking sides, given that Russia has always been a traditional friend and once an ally during the Cold War. Ultimately, it is all about upholding international law and the very principles and purposes of the UN Charter. 

As for the way forward, a healthy discussion should not be about finger pointing, naming and shaming, but rather on how to enable countries in the region, particularly small states like Cambodia, to meet their development needs, address existing and emerging global challenges, embark upon IR4.0 and digitalization, and above all to exercise their agency.