2012 has etched itself into the history books. During the last twelve months Southeast Asia regularly made global headlines largely due to competing territorial claims between China and various neighboring states.
Certainly, the result was not what China hoped for.
Beijing's actions in the South China Sea and claims over the Spratly and Parcel Islands elevated the status of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the global diplomatic stage.
Against this backdrop the United States continued implementing its "rebalance" to Southeast Asia, raising the diplomatic stakes in the confrontation, much to China's irritation.
The issue also divided ASEAN like never before. Several ASEAN members have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea. Throughout the year Vietnam and the Philippines took the lead in challenging Beijing while Malaysia and Brunei adopted a more muted tone in the dispute.
Beijing tried to thwart efforts by Manila and Hanoi to establish a united ASEAN position on negotiations with China over its territorial ambitions. China wants to deal with each claimant bilaterally and has resisted efforts to bring the dispute before international courts.
Cambodia had a difficult year as chair of ASEAN. Phnom Penh – a long term beneficiary of Chinese aid and soft loans – often times pushed China’s agenda at summits between Southeast Asian leaders winning it few friends. A stalemate persists.
China could often rely on Cambodia’s legendary former monarch and King Father, Norodom Sihanouk for help in soothing regional relations. But the man who led Cambodia against the Japanese occupation in World War II, and after independence in 1953, passed away in October.
The public response to his death was overwhelming and of great concern to Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government was under constant fire at home and from international human rights groups over allegations of widespread land-grabbing by the rich and powerful and an escalation in the government's use of violence.