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Facilitating Multilateralism: EU-Cambodian ASEAN Dialogue

01 Nov Facilitating Multilateralism: EU-Cambodian ASEAN Dialogue

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Multilateralism is undoubtedly under attack today. Global issues such as the US-China rivalry and the management of COVID-19 crisis have increasingly undermined the importance of multilateralism. With the US and China intensely vying for hegemony, we witnessed many instances of the two major superpowers shifting away from multilateralism to adopt bilateralism. The pandemic has also revealed the growing trend of countries turning inwards and espousing protectionist policies to safeguard their national interests, instead of helping other countries in need and prioritising collective action. Despite such disruptions to the current multilateral order, enhancing multilateral cooperation remains an imperative need especially in times of crisis.

On Tuesday, 12 October 2021, the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) organised the webinar, “Facilitating Multilateralism: EU-Cambodian ASEAN Dialogue”, where ideas on strengthening cooperation between the European Union (EU) and ASEAN were mooted. The dialogue also expounded on the instrumental roles that both the EU and ASEAN play in tackling common challenges and the future prospects of the EU-ASEAN partnership.

The first panel entitled, “EU-ASEAN Relations in the Context of Multilateralism”, discussed practical ways to bolster EU-ASEAN cooperation. One of the pragmatic steps proposed was notably to admit the EU into the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS serves as a valuable coordination platform for countries in the East Asian region, together with the US and Russia, to address key political, security and economic challenges that beset the Indo-Pacific. By integrating the EU into the EAS, the EU can play a greater role in shaping the regional infrastructure, hence deepening its partnership with ASEAN. Another possible area of enhancing EU-ASEAN cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region where both EU and ASEAN could synchronise their modes of operation to provide an alternative narrative that poses as a counterbalance to the predominant US-China rhetoric. This is to prevent the geopolitical issue of US-China competition from dominating the Indo-Pacific space, which would further threaten multilateralism in the region if left unfettered. Lastly, it is crucial for ASEAN to focus on executing concrete actions via an issue-based approach, rather than having only broad visions and plans without any follow-up implementation.

The panellists included Dr Nguyen Hung Son, Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam; Dr. Françoise Nicolas, Senior Research Fellow and Director of French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) Center for Asian Studies; Ms Jessica Wau, Deputy Director of ASEAN, Singapore Institute of International Affairs; and Dr. Michael Reiterer, Distinguished Professor for International Security and Diplomacy, Institute for European Studies.

The second panel, “ASEAN Chairmanship in 2022 and its Centrality in the context of Big Power Competition”, underscored the importance of ASEAN centrality and highlighted the effectiveness of ASEAN. ASEAN centrality posits that ASEAN’s role as the prime mover and key player of regional institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and EAS must be perpetually maintained. ASEAN centrality is also inextricably linked to the legitimacy of ASEAN. This is further illustrated by the coup in Myanmar where ASEAN’s perceived ineffectiveness in de-escalating the country’s conflict has led to waning public confidence in the bloc’s capabilities. ASEAN must also enhance its self-reliance and not depend on dialogue partners for funding of ASEAN forums and meetings to ensure that ASEAN has complete autonomy in steering the agenda. A lack of self-sufficiency will inevitably diminish ASEAN centrality. It is also essential to foster value-based centrality where shared norms and rules form the bedrock of multilateral institutions, instead of individual states’ short-term interests.

The speakers comprised  Ms. Pich Charadine, Deputy Director of Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace; Dr. Eva Pejsova, Senior Japan Fellow, Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy (CSDS) of the Brussels School of Governance (BSoG-VUB) and an Associate Fellow at the French “Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique” (FRS);  Dr. Philip Vermonte, Executive Director of Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia; and Dr Aries A. Arugay, Associate Professor, University of the Philippines.

Although ASEAN faces several institutional limitations such as ineffective and inefficient bureaucratic structure, and disunity amongst member states, ASEAN remains integral in the region’s development as the main custodian of the Indo-Pacific. Hence, ASEAN countries must muster the willingness to overcome such institutional challenges and revise the grouping’s mechanism to swiftly enact effective policies. It is also equally essential that ASEAN employs creativity when devising solutions. The current prospect for EU-ASEAN cooperation looks rather bleak but being cognizant of the declining state of multilateralism is a promising first step in the right direction.