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ASEAN Chairman’s Delegation Confirms ASEAN-US Maritime Action Plan Has Not Yet Reached Detailed Discussions

PHNOM PENH: Before the opening of the ASEAN-US Special Summit, the United States mentioned an initiative worth $150 million dollars to strengthen ASEAN-US relations and cooperation. $60 million dollars from this initiative will allocated to developing maritime cooperation, a move that is likely to affect China. However, the delegation representative of the 2022 ASEAN Chair confirmed that this cooperation has not yet been discussed in detail and made into an action plan.

The Minister Delegate Attached to the Prime Minister, Kao Kim Hourn, confirmed to EAC News that the announcement of strengthened maritime cooperation was just a joint concept formed between the two regions, and that no specific action plan yet has been made as of yet. However, he stressed that maritime cooperation between ASEAN and the United States is beneficial to all countries, particularly on matters related to security, drug and human trafficking and other illegal activities.

"What is important is capacity building and the exchange of information and reporting, especially regarding illegal fishing. Illegal fishing in our sea or other seas is also present in ASEAN member states," said Minister Delegate Kao Kim Hourn. "We will obviously be like that, there will be cooperation, there will be information exchange, there will be training! So, this is just in anticipation of what ASEAN-US is doing in other areas, just to see what action plan implements the overall concept that will be possible in the future."

In the joint vision statement of the 2022 ASEAN-US Special Summit, the two sides pledged to promote maritime cooperation through the ASEAN-led mechanism. ASEAN-US plans to establish new relations as well as enhance cooperation and coordination among relevant agencies, including maritime law enforcement agencies, to work together to improve maritime awareness, search and rescue, maritime security and prevention of Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, through the sharing of information, practice and expertise, as well as technical assistance that will complement and not replicate existing mechanisms. The two sides pledged to continue efforts to protect, restore and manage the marine environment sustainably.

The 10th point in this joint vision statement stated, "We are dedicated to maintaining peace, security, and stability in the region, and to ensuring maritime security and safety, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas as described in the 1982 UNCLOS, and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities."

In a press release issued on 12 May 2022, ahead of the ASEAN-US summit at the White House, US President Joe Biden announced a $150 million-dollar initiative, of which $60 million will be used to expand maritime cooperation between the US and ASEAN. This initiative will be largely led by the US Coast Guard (USCG). The US Coast Guard will manage money and equipment, deploy additional staff to the Indo-Pacific, a cutter to Southeast Asia and Oceania for security cooperation, as well as train ASEAN countries in these areas.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Zhao Lijian, stated during a Regular Press Conference on Friday (13 May) that, “China and ASEAN do not seek zero-sum games or push for bloc confrontation. China welcomes all cooperation initiatives as long as they can promote long-term and sustainable development and common prosperity in the region.”

He continued, “both China and the US are Asia-Pacific countries. There is no reason why we cannot share regional friends. It is important to heed the call of regional countries to maintain peace, deepen cooperation and seek common development, and uphold the principles of mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

The South China Sea dispute escalated in 2013, when China began building the Spartly and Paracel Islands. The five ASEAN countries involved in the dispute over territorial and maritime claims and trade routes with China are the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The President of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, Dr. Sok Touch, told EAC News that by enhancing relations with ASEAN this year, it shows that the United States is looking to increase its influence in Southeast Asia after holding concerns about Chinese influence and seeing regional failures in Africa and East Asia. He added that increasing maritime cooperation between ASEAN and the United States was only a temporary initiative, but could not have a serious impact on China.

"I think this is just a show of gathering strength. In fact, the strongest [countries in the South China Sea] are South Korea and Japan," said Dr. Sok Touch. "ASEAN sees 3-4 countries, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, that have [problems with China], but this is a conspiracy to withstand the situation. This issue is only a peaceful settlement, because the resentment of the United States and NATO is what gives the world a headache, Russia cannot control it, and it is what leads to a war of aggression [against Ukraine]."

The 2022 ASEAN Chair, Prime Minister Hun Sen, announced on 11 May from Washington D.C., during a meeting with more than 2,000 Cambodians living in the United States and Canada, that any initiative in the Asia-Pacific region for Cambodia is based on three principles, to serve peace and development, to not be against any country, and to respect the unity of ASEAN.

The Prime Minister said, "These are the three principles that we decide to support or not support within the framework and initiatives related to the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific. I reaffirmed my support to the Prime Minister of Japan for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative. I have my principles. ASEAN also has its own Indo-Pacific initiative ready to be implemented, and so ASEAN cannot go supporting one country over another, forgetting its own principles. It is in line with Cambodia's position.”

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