A Cambodian Regional Analyst Highly Evaluates Cambodia’s Chairmanship of ASEM Summit

AKP Phnom Penh, January 27, 2020 —

Dr. Chheang Vannarith, a well-known Cambodian scholar, has shared here recently his comments with AKP over Cambodia’s chairmanship of the 13th Asia-Europe (ASEM) Summit, expecting that it will further strengthen multilateralism for shared prosperity and ASEM members could reach consensus in addressing emerging global and regional issues.

The 13th ASEM Summit to be held in Cambodia in November 2020 will be an opportunity for ASEAN and EU leaders to reflect, fathom and envision together to resolve some of the world’s pressing issues such as climate change, socio-economic inequality, fragmented societies, violent extremism, and weak global and regional governance, said Dr. Chheang Vannarith, President of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), adding that the escalating tensions in the Middle East, especially the military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, and the renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea will be the hot security topics to be discussed.

According to Dr. Chheang Vannarith, two key words that will be addressed at the 13th ASEM Summit are effective multilateralism and shared growth. The task ahead for the ASEM members is to build a united position against protectionism and unilateralism and to strengthen open, inclusive and effective multilateralism.

Moreover, he continued, the ASEM Member States need to work closer together to advance rules-based international order, ensure fair share of growth, and promote social justice and inclusion. They should refrain from interfering into the domestic affairs of other member countries and take a prudent approach to not allow bilateral tensions or disputes to overshadow inter-regional cooperation.

Here are some background information of the relations between the European Union (EU) and ASEAN shared by Dr. Chheang Vannarith.

EU became ASEAN’s Dialogue Partner in 1977, and it was formally institutionalised following the signing of the ASEAN-EEC Cooperation Agreement on Mar. 7, 1980. The adoption of the Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership in 2007 was an important milestone in their dialogue relations. The dialogue relations had since grown with the adoption of the Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action to Strengthen the ASEAN-EU Enhanced Partnership (2013–2017) in 2012, which gave a more strategic focus on cooperation at regional level to a wide range of areas including political, security, economic, trade, and sociocultural aspects. Both sides are now exploring the possibility to advance their cooperation to a strategic partnership.

Three convergent forces cement ties between ASEAN and the EU. Firstly, both regional organisations have a firm belief in an open, inclusive, effective, and rules-based multilateral system. This system has now been under unprecedented assault since the end of the Cold War, mainly due to the U.S.’ adoption of protectionist policy and the rising trend of extreme rightwing politics in some European countries. In such an uncertain and fast-changing world, ASEAN and the EU need to further deepen their partnership and be more innovative and proactive in strengthening multilateralism.

Secondly, the U.S.-China competition and confrontation have presented both opportunities and challenges for ASEAN and the EU. Both regional institutions can effectively implement collective hedging strategy to mitigate risks and expand opportunities from the rivalry. To do that, institutional capacity building and leadership are the core mechanisms to effectively exercise institutional and multilateral pressures to shape the behaviour of major powers as well as to put institutional constraints on the deviant behaviour of member countries.

Thirdly, harnessing inter-regional connectivity between the two continents has been the common vision and interest of the two organisations. In 2010, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) was launched with the aim to enhance physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity in Southeast Asia. Since then the “connectivity” has become one of the key pillars of ASEAN regional integration and community building as well as ASEAN’s external relations. In 2018, the EU also issued a strategy on connecting Europe with Asia, which was informed by the principles of sustainable, comprehensive, and international rules-based connectivity. Specific projects include transport (air, sea, land) connectivity, digital connectivity, energy connectivity, and people to people connectivity.

Policy Proposals for ASEAN-EU Partnership

There are conceptual and policy areas that ASEAN and the EU need to work together to address the differences in order to deepen their partnership.

First, the definition of “rules-based international order” has been a controversial and contentious issue in international cooperation. Even among ASEAN member countries, there is no standard or common definition of this term. Therefore, ASEAN and the EU should further promote multi-track dialogues and consultation on the concept of rules-based international order and rules-based connectivity so that common understanding and position can be achieved.

Second, ASEAN and the EU should expand their cooperation on connectivity projects to also include security connectivity, which refers to connecting security issues, connecting security stakeholders, and connecting knowledges and solutions to address security issues. The case in point here is the development of a holistic solution to climate change and water-food-energy nexus. The EU has knowledge and experience in this field that is valuable for Southeast Asian countries particularly the Mekong countries. In this regard, connecting Mekong with Danube can be a new area of cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, and they should focus on climate change and water-food-energy security nexus.

Third, the EU needs to be mindful of some gaps. The EU’s positions on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, palm oil issue with Indonesia and Malaysia (with the concern over environmental protection), Sharia law in Brunei, and the threat to revoke the EBA from Cambodia have affected the quality of the ASEAN-EU bilateral partnership. ASEAN members are sensitive to foreign interference into their domestic affairs, as the memories of colonialism and imperialism remain strong in their strategic culture, nationalist narrative, and regime legitimisation.


ASEAN-EU partnership will evolve in a positive trend, as both regional organisations share similar worldviews and commitments to strengthening an open, inclusive, effective and rules-based multilateral system. Both sides need to be more sensitive to certain issues that might derail or damage the strategic and political trust between the two institutions. Some of the sensitive issues that might disrupt ASEAN-EU partnership have derived mainly from the bilateral relationship between the ASEAN member countries and the EU such as the Resolution on Palm Oil and Deforestation of Rainforests affecting palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia, the threat to suspend the EBA from Cambodia, the pressure of the EU on Myanmar over the Rohingya issue, and the criticism by the EU on Sharia law in Brunei.

ASEAN and the EU must further exchange and harmonise their worldviews especially on how to strengthen effective, coherent and cohesive multilateralism and multilateral coordination. They need to work together on how to respond and develop innovative stakeholder partnership to address global issues and challenges. Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) is an instrumental institutional bridge connecting Asia and Europe as well as strengthening ASEAN-EU partnership.

(Dr. Chheang Vannarith, President of Asian Vision Institute)

By Khan Sophirom