Cambodia’s Chance: Chairing ASEAN in 2022

BY Amb. W. Patrick Murphy Ambassador of the United States to Cambodia

An Ambassador’s Corner Commentary

As 2022 ASEAN Chair, Cambodia has an opportunity to promote meaningful dialogue on key issues for ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific

Thirty years ago, this October, the signing of the historic Paris Peace Agreements brought an end to decades of conflict in Cambodia.  In addition to the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council Permanent Five, signatories included all six then-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); future ASEAN members Vietnam and Laos; Australia, China, India, and Japan; and Cambodia.  Soon after, the international community mobilized the largest peacekeeping mission ever assembled to implement the Agreements.  The peace held — due to the efforts of international partners and the resilience of the Cambodian people — and Cambodia has prospered.  Signifying its regional integration, Cambodia was admitted to ASEAN in 1999.  Next year, the Kingdom will Chair ASEAN for the third time.

Since establishing formal relations 44 years ago, the United States and ASEAN have a proud record of strategic partnership.  The United States was the first non-member state to name an ambassador and to establish a dedicated Mission to ASEAN.  Today, flagship U.S. programs like the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) demonstrate continued commitment to the region, providing opportunities for thousands of youth to participate in exchange programs. The United States, including through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership (MUSP) and its predecessor the Lower Mekong Initiative, has provided over $3.5 billion for the Mekong region.

The American and ASEAN peoples benefit from this longstanding partnership.  With a collective population of some 650 million, ASEAN is our fourth-largest trading partner while the United States was the region’s largest source of investment in 2019.  We collaborate with ASEAN on maritime security, non-proliferation, climate change, trafficking in persons, intellectual property rights, gender equality, and more.  The United States and ASEAN share great diversity and a recognition of the importance of democracy, good governance, human rights, and rule of law.  Our positive engagement with ASEAN on critical issues of regional and global importance, notably during its annual summits and other high-level meetings with dialogue partners, is vital to advancing our own policy goals.

Since the founding of ASEAN over half a century ago, the role of the annual rotating Chair has grown in both importance and complexity.  The Chair convenes many high-level meetings over the course of the year.  Two key gatherings are the ASEAN Regional Forum — a senior-level dialogue on political and security cooperation that includes the United States and 26 other Indo-Pacific nations — and the East Asia Summit, a consequential meeting of leaders of ASEAN nations, the United States, and seven other world powers.

As the 2022 ASEAN Chair, Cambodia will again have an opportunity to shape regional diplomacy and promote meaningful dialogue on issues such as the DPRK‘s continuing dangerous and unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) vast and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea and its intimidation of ASEAN claimant states, and the Burmese military coup and violent crackdown.  Cambodia will also be in a position to advance progress on key areas of mutual interest among Indo-Pacific nations, including economic recovery from the global COVID-19 pandemic, action to address the climate crisis, and consideration of Timor-Leste’s longstanding application for ASEAN membership.

Ten years ago, during Cambodia’s chair year, ASEAN member states failed for the first time ever to issue a joint communiqué, largely due to differences over language addressing the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea.  The stakes are higher than ever now:  in the intervening decade the PRC has increased its reclamation, construction, and militarization of disputed features in the region.

Cambodia and ASEAN also face environmental challenges.  Member states that rely on the Mekong River face an environmental catastrophe, in large part due to excessive upstream damming and mismanagement that have caused water levels and fishery yields to hit all-time lows.  Some ASEAN members have also struggled with implementing the ASEAN Charter’s commitment to human rights, including Cambodia itself, which has not lived up fully to the vision of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements for multiparty democracy and political space for all voices.

Positive steps from Cambodia as ASEAN Chair in 2022 to address effectively these many complex issues will benefit all of ASEAN and its partners, including the United States.  We are already working with Cambodian stakeholders to advance our shared interests in a peaceful, developed, and integrated ASEAN, whose member states respect the rule of law, uphold the dignity of their peoples, and address regional and global concerns.     The United States supports ASEAN efforts to foster regional stability and prosperity.  I have dedicated most of my diplomatic career to this region, raised my own family in three Southeast Asian countries, and care deeply about strengthening our relations in a part of the world where local people are determined to improve sustainable growth, maintain peace, and strengthen democratic practices and respect for human rights.  As Ambassador to Cambodia, I look forward to further dialogue with officials, diplomats, and civil society as we approach ASEAN 2022.