German president’s Southeast Asian visit signals political, economic promise

The visit of German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier could be a platform to reassess political, economic and cultural ties between ASEAN and Germany.

Melanie Gerster
February 13, 2023
German president’s Southeast Asian visit signals political, economic promise
Frank-Walter Steinmeier (right) when he was foreign minister gives a press conference at the end of the meeting of the foreign ministers from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2007. Photo: Jean Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

The upcoming, visit of German federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier provides a good incentive for German-Cambodian relations. 

Building on intensified relations during the Cambodia´s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022, and in midst of the reforming world order and resulting insecurities, Steinmeier’s first-ever visit from 13 – 15 February creates the opportunity to redefine the partnership between the two countries. 

From an international, regional and domestic perspective, this could mean significant changes within the forthcoming years. Celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations between unified Germany and Cambodia in October 2023

Recently, a kind of spotlight has fallen on Southeast Asia. There are several reasons for this.

Closer collaboration between the E.U. and ASEAN and their member states is becoming more crucial while longstanding great power dynamics are currently reshuffling. 

The U.S. is once again tending towards further multilateral engagement, while China pushes for more influence and greater responsibilities. As these powers now compete for supremacy in Southeast Asia, balanced and strategic deepening and broadening of mutual relations benefits both sides. Following the German Indo-Pacific Strategy, introduced in 2020, Germany seeks to find closer partnerships with the states in the region. 

Cambodia´s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022 has pulled attention to the country and its political aspirations on the regional and international stage. 

The meeting of German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn in the beginning of 2022 was the first time the two states’ foreign ministries had met on this level since 1995. It proved to be a promising start of exchanges between the countries. 

With this, Germany showed its support for Cambodia´s chairmanship and offered some trust for the upcoming year for ASEAN. The chairmanship, in turn, fostered Cambodia´s engagement within ASEAN and its (re-) connection on the global stage.

International engagements

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attends a press conference at the presidential Bellevue Palace on 9 February, 2023 in Berlin. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP

The war against Ukraine has shaken some of the core beliefs of German and European people. After more than 75 years of peace and the continuous attempts to find peaceful solutions to resolve conflicts, after strengthening the rule-based order, establishing a common identity or at least a more and more integrated framework for cooperation in political, economic and cultural spheres, the attack of a sovereign nation against another has forced Germany to rethink its ways of interaction. 

The struggle for a rule-based order, free trade among free and sovereign nations cannot be upheld when the world falls back into the old ways. 

The commitment to internationally applied standards and rules, while flawed, and the resolution of conflicts in a peaceful manner was one of the main achievements of the second half of the 20th century. Confronted with this new reality, new strategies need to be found while partnerships need to be refocused. 

All these achievements cannot simply be considered as universal – they need to be introduced, defended, amended and discussed continuously to ensure their significance for peaceful and prosperous collaboration is transmitted. 

For the E.U., ASEAN provides significant potential for collaboration. 

One reason for this is that, despite the differences in implementing and institutionalising regional integration, the “ASEAN way” has proven to be a stabilising factor in the region. This holds up even as it’s presented with challenges such as the South China Sea conflict, the political situation in Myanmar, the war in Ukraine and the social and economic comeback after the Covid pandemic.

Trying to balance the rivalry between the U.S. and China as well as finding a united voice and place in international matters, the E.U. and Germany are reshaping their roles in the world and looking to partner with Southeast Asian countries who share mutual interests. This investment would support stable and reliable relations from which all member states will benefit.

This might include the still-pending Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the E.U. and ASEAN. This was an important topic at the first E.U.- ASEAN summit in Brussels at the end of 2022. As the third largest trading partner for both organisations, all member states could benefit tremendously from the FTA. 

The political, economic and social issues currently obstructing further negotiations are tough but not unsolvable, and a new generation of skillful leaders is growing and has promising prospects of finding solutions that could move the negotiations along.

There’s also the potential for enlarged collaboration through SHARE, the E.U.-funded project that promotes higher education in the ASEAN region. Modelled after the E.U.´s Erasmus programme, SHARE aims to enable students to study abroad, creating bonds, exchanging ideas and forming broad-minded, skillful individuals who can inspire their peers at home and abroad. Further investment in this area will help to raise a generation of young leaders who are more likely to engage in multilateral partnerships and recognise the importance of collaboration in political, economic and social matters.

With its display of commitment to the values of ASEAN and the strengthening cooperation within the region, Cambodia received attention in Europe and especially in Germany. Germany is looking for partners in the region that share the commitment to multilateralism, a rule-based order and fostering relations through economic interdependencies.

With its way of steering ASEAN during 2022 and the support of a U.N. General Assembly  resolution where Cambodia condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the country has received high praises from E.U. countries and the U.S., among others, for upholding the principles of the U.N. Charta. Joining the majority of U.N. countries in the attempt to uphold the international rule-based order was a strong sign that the U.N.´s self-evident values matter to Cambodia. 

Germany should foster this strong commitment, using existing ties between the states to encourage and strengthen multilateralism, rule-based international engagements and advertising its benefits. Seeing this development, Germany might have to rethink its rather traditional way of partnering with developing countries. 

Up until now, the German-Cambodian relations are donor-recipient relations. It is time to elevate them to a real partnership that focuses on educational promotion and exchange and further improvement of bilateral trade and investments.

Then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (right) gives a press conference at the end of the meeting of the Foreign Ministers from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2007 in Nuremberg, southern Germany. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

Shared historical developments

Germany and Cambodia share a significant part of historic development. Both countries have gone through great human rights violations and genocide in the 20th century. Sharing these traumatic experiences has been an incentive for Germany to offer support to Cambodia in dealing with the past and prevent such atrocities in the future, mostly through educational and awareness-raising measures and projects. 

Cambodia and Germany today look back on almost six decades of relations. One significant highlight of this relations is the establishment of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is to this day a highly valued project, displaying the atrocities of the countries´ history. 

It offers visitors the chance to learn about mistakes of the past and to find useful incentives for the future. With the former German Democratic Republic, there was also an extensive education exchange program, with over 4,000 students pursuing their education in East Germany. 

Since Germany’s reunification and the end of the civil war in Cambodia, both states have been actively engaged in fostering their collaboration on a cultural level. One example here is the German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) running since 1995, making it the longest running international cultural preservation project. Cultural awareness is also a matter of education. The support of peace and conflict education projects in universities underlines this commitment and provides additional support for dealing with the past.

Looking ahead

Nowadays, the educational exchange programs between Germany and Cambodia attract far fewer  students than they used to. The number of Cambodian students who are studying in Germany is continuously decreasing. These pillars should be the ones that Germany strengthens its efforts in – supporting education to ensure responsible and sustainable peace and conflict management, to provide young Cambodians with the chance to shape their own future. 

Educational measures go beyond borders and exchange programs support mutual understanding. They provide the chance to shape a whole generation and promote collaboration from local to an international level.

Frank Walter Steinmeier will visit Cambodia for three days. His appointments include a trip to Siem Reap to learn about the restoration projects which are undertaken with support of the Technical University Cologne and with funding from the German government. In Phnom Penh, he will meet with stakeholders from the political, economic and civil society sectors to discuss diversification of the Cambodian economy, the ongoing restoration and the demining projects in the country.

Expanding and enhancing educational measures in politics, economy, social and cultural matters will shape a new generation of young people. Strengthening the exchanges between Germany and Cambodia, between the E.U. and ASEAN is undoubtedly beneficial for all involved and will further push the positive developments that we have seen throughout the last year. 

Melanie Gerster is the Head of the Program Department at Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation Cambodia. Her research focus includes education policies, digitalisation and global governance. She is qualified in governance and public policy with a keen interest in education policy programming, multilateral programmatic and administrative implementation along with policy research.

Read more articles