After a series of online-only zoom sessions due to COVID-19 restrictions, Asia Forum and Southeast Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence brought back the face-to-face vibes with the hybrid session on “Navigating ASEAN Centrality through the increasing rivalry between China and the United States”.
Held on 15 September, the event was also jointly organised by New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (Wellington Branch) and attracted more than 60 attendees in-person and online. Those present at the talk held at Victoria University’s Pipitea campus also networked over drinks and nibbles at the end of the session.
His Excellency Ambassador Pou Sothirak, the Executive Director for Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) spoke on zoom from Cambodia, giving his views on the relevance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) amidst fierce competition between the two powers in the Indo-Pacific and its implications for ASEAN.
Amongst the attendees were representatives from the region’s diplomatic circles in Wellington, including High Commissioner for Singapore, His Excellency Sudesh Maniar, High Commissioner for Malaysia, Her Excellency Nur Izzah Wong Mee Choo, as well as Ms Georgina Roberts, Divisional Manager from New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Asia Regional Division, who gave closing remarks and answered questions from the floor in a lively panel discussion that followed Mr Sothirak’s question and answer time. Also present was the Chargée d’Affaires a.i. from the Philippines Embassy, Mrs Querobine Laccay.
Cohesive ASEAN to avoid taking sides
According to Mr Sothirak, a cohesive ASEAN is key to preventing the regional bloc from having to take sides amidst US and China’s rivalry for dominance.
In urging ASEAN centrality to pick up steam, Mr Sothirak said, “The ten members must remain united, or risk being undermined by outside powers”.
He suggested that ASEAN exhibits a bolder strategy to engage the two great powers smartly but prudently by not circumventing one power against another and maintains credibility by being the neutral partner. While continuing to ride on China’s economic might, it is important for ASEAN to recognise that the US remains the dominant extra-regional power in the region.
In reflecting on the challenges faced by ASEAN as spelt out by Mr Sothirak and the ambassadors, Ms Roberts reiterated New Zealand’s support for its architecture and as “a credible and constructive partner for ASEAN”.
More key takeaways from Mr Sothirak’s talk can be found on the CICP website here.