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Understanding ASEAN Blue Economy and Cambodia’s Maritime Governance Challenges

Since the establishment of ASEAN in 1967, this regional organisation has rallied tremendous efforts to promote the ASEAN’s community-building, yet there are still numerous challenges such as territorial conflicts, shifting demographics, economic inequality, and environmental degradation, that the ASEAN must unify to address.

For Southeast Asia, which has about 66% of its area covered by water bodies, maritime space has always been a crucial avenue for growth through trade. To harness this maritime potential sustainably, ASEAN adopted the ‘Declaration on the Blue Economy’ during the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summit in October 2021. In 2023, under Indonesia’s chairmanship, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Blue Economy Framework. The framework focuses on the development and conservation of ocean, seas, marine and coastal ecosystems. Additionally, it also serves as the ASEAN guidelines to promote value creation, inclusiveness and sustainability aspects to support SDGs and mechanisms to diffuse maritime disputes. Cambodia is at the early stage of maximising the benefits of the blue economy since the Kingdom does not have a clear policy framework and effective mechanism for addressing critical challenges such as declining fish stocks, overfishing, illegal practices, ecosystem degradation and pollution.

The term ‘Blue Economy’ is a multifaceted and cross-cutting concept that involves all three pillars of the ASEAN, namely ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Political-Security. The ASEAN Blue Economy Framework acknowledges the ocean and seas as key drivers of economic growth, interconnectivities and marine cooperation, while taking into account the need to ensure ocean sustainability and rules-based ocean governance. The three core pillars of ASEAN were established to enhance mutual trust and confidence among members, promote respect for international laws, foster a culture of peace, democracy and human rights and support peaceful resolutions of dispute and respect each other's sovereignty. However, these values are undermined by fast-changing geopolitics, great power rivalry, fragility of global security and slow economic growth.

To protect and strengthen its regional position in the face of these geopolitical changes, ASEAN has published  'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, (AOIP) in 2019 which serves as a roadmap to promote and enable a regional environment conducive to peace, stability, and prosperity. AOIP objectives are to encourage ASEAN member states (AMS) to promote intra-cooperation and to work with external partners on four key areas: maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic cooperation. The AOIP also strengthens ASEAN's centrality and community building process, as well as the implementation of ASEAN maritime cooperation, connectivity, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), economic cooperation, and other areas of collaboration under regional forums and initiatives such as ARF, EAS, Bali Concord II, ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF). Both AOIP and ASEAN Blue Economy complement each other and have the potential to foster the region's sustainable, resilient, and inclusive development. For instance, the two documents support the principles of the 1982 UNLCOS and ASEAN's standards and values as established in the ASEAN Charter and other related documents, according to the ASEAN Declaration approved by the 40th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh (2022). Furthermore, both AOIP and ASEAN Blue Economy strengthen regional maritime cooperation through marine environmental protection,maritime security, maritime connectivity, maritime sustainability and maritime culture.

Finally, the two documents contribute to the resolution of common issues, advance the UN SDGs 2030, and promote economic integration, climate change, biodiversity conservation, and disaster management. As a result, the AOIP and the ASEAN Blue Economy may be viewed as mutually reinforcing and synergistic frameworks that can assist ASEAN in realising its goal of a peaceful, stable, and wealthy region. Additionally, Cambodia’s perception toward the blue economy is that it is an emerging concept that could advance Cambodia's aspiration to promote the sustainable, resilient and inclusive use of marine and coastal resources.

Cambodia has stressed regional and global integration, notably in terms of security and economic growth, since joining ASEAN in 1999. Since then, the Kingdom advocates the regional integration process, inclusive development and respect for ASEAN Centrality. Holding the ASEAN chair for the third time, Cambodia has been promoting ASEAN identity and community, supporting ASEAN initiatives on disaster management, climate changes, pandemic response and sustainable development goals. Cambodia also has considerable potential to ensure the sustainable use of marine and coastal resources for economic growth, improve livelihood and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem. 

ASEAN Blue Economy might assist Cambodia in promoting sustainable, resilient, and inclusive economic growth by strengthening marine trade and governance via maritime resources management, technological advancement and innovation and marine-based manufacturing and biology research. Balancing economic progress with environmental conservatism is critical for the Kingdom's socioeconomic development. Cambodia, as an ASEAN member, may benefit from the blue economy by increasing maritime industries such as fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, and shipping, which contribute to national employment, infrastructure development, and food security. According to the Ministry of Environment (2020), three blue economic sectors, fisheries, tourism and shipping and ports, contributed an estimated nearly $2.8 billion in gross value. Furthermore, the blue economy has the potential to increase marine environmental preservation, research, and restoration, as well as minimise maritime pollution. Because of greater management such as biological research and tourism, sustainable marine resource management, education and research will minimize the impact of climate change, illicit fishing and preserve marine biology. 

According to Pouch and Oum (2023), the Kingdom cannot realise its full potential to implement legal and policy frameworks related to coastal and marine areas and resources due to a lack of an integrated policy framework and institutional arrangements, as well as limited capacity, human resources, technology, and investment in coastal and marine infrastructure and services. For instance, The National Committee on Management and Development of Cambodian Coastal regions was founded in 2012 to lead and coordinate the sustainable and responsible management and development of coastal regions with limited budget and manpower. Moreover, the ocean policy framework has not yet been well established without clear spatial planning on how coastal areas or marine resources are managed or used sustainably and inclusively. Lastly, the Kingdom has limited data available related to marine and maritime resources and activities, thus there is lack of recording and reporting related to marine and coastal related resources and activities. 

Despite all of these challenges, the ASEAN Blue Economy will diminish the Kingdom's reliance on foreign shipping firms for international commerce, with a negative trade balance and risks from falling seafood populations, overfishing, unlawful practices, ecosystem degradation, and pollution. As a result, Cambodia must take a multifaceted and holistic approach to blue economy growth, focusing on environmental sustainability and people's well-being. It must also increase its law enforcement, access sustainable funding choices such as blue finance, and engage in the global framework as well as the ASEAN Blue Economy Cooperation Framework. 


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