Cambodia can swing Asean-EU ties

Cambodia can swing Asean-EU ties

As the host of the upcoming 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) next November, Cambodia could be by default the catalyst that will define the future of Asean-EU relations -- for better or worse. At this juncture, it is a toss-up because the EU is contemplating various measures to reprimand Cambodia for its political oppression, land grabbing and disrespect of the human rights of politicians, labour unions, media and farmers. Rubbing salt into the wounds, Cambodia with its close friendship with China has added an extra-thick layer of anxieties among the EU strategists.

Furthermore, the ongoing dispute between the EU and the world's two biggest exporters of palm oil, Indonesia and Malaysia, has already dragged down the EU's official status as a strategic partner. In January, Asean agreed to the EU upgrade but the dispute deferred the grouping's decision further. Both sides are now stuck pending the outcome of the working group set up to deal with this trouble. Asean and the EU have to be cautious as the palm oil dispute could spread and morph into a trade war or something even nastier. After all, Malaysia has Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Indonesia has President Joko Widodo as their popular leaders.

These days, domestic determinants within Asean and the EU are extremely nationalistic with strong populist overtones. Their decision-makers share the same dilemma as they are unable to yield to external pressure at this time. To move forward Asean-EU ties, both sides will have to be practical and realistic. They will have to think outside the box, as the case may be. After all, the EU has to deal with one of the most diversified regions with its different political and economic systems.

At the moment, both Cambodia and Myanmar are under close scrutiny by the EU members as their EBA (everything but arms) preferences could be cut off in the near future.

For Cambodia, Brussels has set a February deadline. This preferential treatment was given to them among the 50 least developed countries around the world. The EU started the procedure for the EBA withdrawal in July 2018 for Cambodia. After a six-month monitoring and evaluation period ended in August, the EU recently came out with a damaging report on the current situation in Cambodia, which in the eyes of the EU has not improved but further deteriorated.

The case of Cambodia is a severe one because it would directly affect the lives of two million Cambodians who depend on the 750,000 workers in garment factories throughout the country. These workforces are pivotal for the country's economic health and revenue. Textile products are Cambodia's No.1 export to the EU, representing nearly 40% of the country's total exports -- worth around US$5.8 billion (175.33 billion baht) last year. With the EBA sanctions, Cambodia could suffer a major man-made humanitarian crisis.

Phnom Penh has until February to dramatically improve the overall political conditions inside the country, especially concerning the role of opposition party leaders, civil society and media. The EU has demanded that the opposition party and its officials have room to play politics in a meaningful way. In the past months, both Cambodia and the EU have exchanged harsh words about non-interference and sovereignty. That rhetoric has intensified after the EU completed its 70-page evaluation report.

In response, Prime Minister Hun Sen has become even more gung ho towards the EU. Meanwhile, he also raised his diplomatic profile through overseas visits to some members of the EU to shore up support. Although Hun Sen has overcome all kinds of political manoeuvrings during more than three decades of his reign, this time around his leadership and legacy is hugely at stake.

More than ever before, at this juncture, Asean and the EU need each other. In the age of America First and isolationist foreign policies, the EU, which used to be a cosponsor of US diplomatic efforts, is no longer on the same page on numerous global issues. As such, Brussels is searching for new strategic partnerships.

The wind has now blown in the direction of Southeast Asia. Last month, Germany acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, joining France (2007) and the UK (2012), which signed up separately. The EU became a TAC signatory in 2012, the only regional institution to do so.

With the growing uncertainty in the global environment in the past three years, the EU has taken a bolder and more active role in maintaining peace and stability in all four corners of the world. Brussels understands very well that the external conditions are unstable and will impact on Europe's overall security. The EU has also learned extremely harsh lessons from the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which has divided the EU to the core.

It is unfortunate that given the long-standing history of Asean-EU ties, the EU is still unable to maximise its partnership with Asean, especially in times of need. Today, Asean-EU ties cannot move forward due to a so-called "small glitch" -- the word used by Sor Siphana, senior foreign policy adviser to the Cambodian government. This small glitch, he added, could become a bigger obstacle if the EU does not know how to handle the bilateral ties with Cambodia as well as collective Asean.

After 47 years of engagement, the grouping's oldest partner is still trying to figure out the best way to handle Asean both individually and collectively. However, in comparison with the US, the EU still enjoys overall Asean trust and confidence. Indeed, Asean is now much closer to the EU because of the erratic policies and behaviour of President Trump. But there are still hurdles that need to be overcome.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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