Foreign ministers from ASEAN’s member states and its dialogue partners began arriving in Phnom Penh on Saturday for a summit likely to focus largely on regional and global crises, including the murderous military regime in Myanmar, Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine and climate change.
Global tensions over Ukraine are sure to be in the spotlight, given the planned presence of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the series of meetings, which run from July 29 to August 5.
Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute in Phnom Penh, noted that differing alliances within ASEAN had prevented joint statements from being issued in Russia’s war at recent summits.
“Tensions and controversy will arise, especially with regard to Russia's presence at the meeting, as the West is opposed to Russia's presence,” Chheang Vannarith told VOA Khmer on Friday. “It’s hard to reach a consensus because it already has two blocs.”
Cambodia, as the rotating chair of ASEAN, is tasked with promoting regional and international cooperation on a range of issues, from revitalizing economic activity after the Covid-19 crisis to ensuring food security, which has also been threatened by Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s major ports, and efforts to limit carbon emissions and advance energy security.
Among the key initiatives to bolster regional economic growth is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which went into force at the start of this year after a decade of negotiations, noted Chheang Vannarith.
The 10 ASEAN members —Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines — will be joined by top diplomats from 11 dialogue partners, including Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also confirmed his participation in the upcoming meetings in Phnom Penh.
Blinken is scheduled to meet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen while in Phnom Penh from Aug. 3-5, and then will travel to the Philippines to meet with new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. before beginning a tour of Africa.
The State Department said Blinken will focus on the need for “ASEAN centrality,” and “will also address the COVID-19 pandemic, economic cooperation, the fight against climate change, the crisis in Burma, and Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
Political science professor Em Sovannara told VOA Khmer that the crisis in Burma, which began with the military coup in February 2021, could remain a hot topic among the foreign ministers. The regime made global headlines last week when it executed four pro-democracy activists, including a former lawmaker.
"Perhaps the issue of Burma is a necessary point for discussing security issues in the region. Another point could be the issue of the so-called ASEAN position on building and maintaining relations with the United States, as agreed on May 13 at a special meeting with the United States on the United States’ soil,” he said.
Em Sovannara said other issues, such as China’s occupation of islands in the South China Sea, which has been a central issue at past summits, will not be discussed in depth, despite China’s territorial claims overlapping with those of a number of ASEAN member states.
However, Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, says that the South China Sea issue is likely to be raised by the Philippines, which has recently seen a new power transition.
"They can raise it again and now it could be like that because the Philippines is taking a new position in my observation. Anything related to interests and points related to South China that affect their national interests, they can raise," he said. "So, this is a story that Cambodia, which is the host, has a more coordinating role to provide further explanations to them.”
Regarding the crisis in Burma, Pou Sothirak said it was time for the bloc to either find a solution to the situation or send it to the United Nations and admit it can’t be resolved at the regional level.
“I think there should be a summit at the United Nations, which means internationalize the crisis, make it an international issue, now it is merely an issue at regional level…and (junta leader) Min Aung Hlaing, he seems to ignore, he is very defiant, and he is mocking” other countries.
The other 10 ASEAN member states agreed on a five-point consensus to end hostilities in Myanmar last year, but there are few signs that the military-led regime is abiding by the plan, which includes an end of violence and initiating dialogue.
Pou Sothirak said Cambodia should also be prepared to respond to unforeseen problems, including the expected visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan, which has drawn warnings from Beijing that it will damage U.S.-China relations and escalate regional tensions.
He added that the attendance of Blinken and Lavrov could also prove a logistical challenge.
“Are they sitting at the same table?” Pou Sothirak said. "For this case, what position would Cambodia and the entire ASEAN take? This is another sensitive issue that I think will happen during meetings for the next few days.”
Blinken’s itinerary, released over the weekend, did not include bilateral meetings with Wang Yi or Lavrov. VOA Khmer has reached out to the State Department about other potential bilateral meetings. Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry could not confirm whether there could be bilateral talks between Blinken and other delegates.
Asked about the challenges that Cambodia may face during this week’s meetings, Chum Sounry wrote via Telegram on Friday that “we expect some challenges and hot regional and international issues to be facing the Meetings, but we hope that with the support, cooperation, understanding and comprehension from all participants, we can realize our strong commitment as the ASEAN Rotating Chair and host country for the smooth and fruitful outcomes of these meetings.”