Cambodia must fall in line with Southeast Asia’s recovering economic tigers before it can participate in the Asean Free Trade Area, officials returning Monday from Cambodia’s first-ever Asean summit said.
“We have integrated ourselves into the regional community as a full-fledged member of Asean,” Minister of Cabinet Sok An said Monday at a news conference. “Now we have to develop our economy, develop our infrastructure and develop our agricultural output.”
Sok An said becoming a regional player is the only way Cambodia one day can compete in an exploding global economy dominated by other regional free-trade areas like the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
At the annual meeting in Manila—attended by Sok An, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and Finance Minister Keat Chhon—Asean leaders announced a plan to promote investment in the post-crisis region.
They said they would accelerate the deadline to end tariffs on goods and forge the way for the Asean Free Trade Area, or AFTA.
Deadlines for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were pushed up from 2015 to 2010. Those for less-developed Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam were moved from 2018 to 2015.
Keat Chhon said Cambodia will implement economic reforms crucial to a free-trade agreement as early as January—including a slow reduction in tariffs and an increase in domestic taxes to fill government coffers.
In recent months, Cambodia’s donor nations and international lenders have expressed concern over sluggish progress in ending government corruption and creating an inviting investment climate. Asean leaders also stressed the need for government transparency at the Manila summit.
Despite the perceived troubles, Keat Chhon said he was optimistic about the country’s growth and predicted a 5.5 percent increase in the gross domestic product, or GDP, next year.
“These indicators give us a boost to act in a proactive way next year,” Keat Chhon said. “We can do it. We will do it.”
The trip to the summit comes nearly one year after the country’s long-awaited admission at last year’s Asean summit in Hanoi. At the time, Asean leaders were divided about when Cambodia would join, and it was not formally admitted until a later Hanoi ceremony in April.
Cambodia was scheduled to join Asean in 1997, but bloody factional fighting between its two leading political parties delayed it.
In addition to attending the summit in Manila, Keat Chhon said he also met with Asian Development Bank leaders, who said two $20 million loans the bank is considering for Cambodia would go toward developing “micro-economies” in rural areas.
High on the list of needed reforms are agricultural reform and production of goods for the domestic market, officials said. If Cambodia does not join the high-tech production sector, it could become a “garbage can” of old machinery from around the world, Keat Chhon said.
The summit also focused on questions of Asean’s non-intervention policies, a sticking point for countries on the fence about Indonesia and its embittered breakaway areas. Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Cambodia has held firm to the more traditional Asean policy of non-intervention.
Hun Sen did not comment on the Asean meeting, instead taking time to meet with National Assembly President Prince Ranariddh.