Within the various corridors of power across Southeast Asia, tongues are still wagging over the outburst delivered by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at last week’s ASEAN summit. At the heart of the speech was Cambodia’s close relationship with China, and his message was simple: Beijing’s generous financial backing of his government didn’t compromise Cambodia’s standing as the annual host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The claim came despite continued friction over the contested Spratly islands, where China has laid claim to the oil and gas rich island chain that lies much closer to the geographical boundaries of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei than anywhere near its own shores.
All four belong to the 10-member ASEAN bloc, where a rift has emerged following Cambodia’s decision to try and outbox an attempt by ASEAN to forge a united front against China on the Spratlys issue.
Adding to the dissension, The Diplomat has since learned that the trip by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Phnom Penh on the eve of the ASEAN Summit that so rattled delegates wasn’t quite the state visit Beijing would have many believe.
Indeed, the visit wasn’t organized by Hun Sen’s office, but through the royal family. Nor was he invited. In short, Hu’s office rang King Norodom Sihamoni’s people and asked the King to invite the Chinese leader. Hu’s visit was then tacked onto the end of a tour of South Korea and India.
Sources said it was a clear case of intimidation by Hu of his ASEAN neighbors, and threw a large spanner into the works in Cambodia, where hundreds of bureaucrats had worked on planning scores of events around the ASEAN Summit.
As mentioned in previous dispatches, Hu told Cambodia that as hosts, there was no need to move too fast on the Spratly issue. As one seasoned observer put it: “They invited themselves. The Chinese are getting arrogant and flexing their muscles, that’s what it’s all about.”
Writing in The Bangkok Post, Umesh Pandey said in an open letter to Hun Sen: “Your ramblings about (Opposition leader) Sam Rainsy and how Cambodia was not a puppet of China for 40 minutes out of the 60 minute press conference gave an indication perhaps that some wheeling and dealing had taken place before the summit.”
This was important. Within just a few days of the outburst, a delegation of 45 Chinese corporations met with 250 Cambodian business people – also largely unannounced – to sign on to deals involving energy, cement, rice and agricultural technology.
The Chinese influence over Cambodia is a worry for other ASEAN members, who have apparently promised to support Phnom Penh’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council later this year for the Asia-Pacific region.
Also seeking a seat, however, is Bhutan. And watching events in Cambodia from afar were the good Buddhist clergy of Thimphu. While Hun Sen was boasting of his ability to control Cambodia’s military and police, and labeling anyone who disagreed with him as crazy, lazy, stupid, or bad-headed along with a sundry of other terms, Bhutan issued its own statement to the world.
It said: “It may not be appropriate for a little country like Bhutan to dare to offer advice to the world,” before adding: “Continuous economic growth and expansion in our finite world is not a must. In fact, this global economic slowdown presents a great opportunity to give nature a rest.
It added it wants people “to reduce stress, to have more free time, to become more secure and self-reliant, and to improve the quality of our lives.”
Bhutan has a National Happiness Index (by which it means a deep abiding happiness) and would prefer to see a world driven less by greed and more by harmony. As such, it will host a U.N. conference in New York this week. It wants to present a new economic plan at the Rio+20 in June, and is inviting world leaders to visit the country in 2014, where it would like to see a fresh Bretton Woods agreement adopted.
It’s difficult not to like the Bhutanese – from a tiny, tiny Himalayan kingdom of 700,000 people.
Some 192 countries will vote in the General Assembly for the next round of non-permanent members, and how Cambodia fares will depend on an audience that’s much wider than ASEAN and China. Perhaps Cambodia too should listen to Bhutan. Australia, Luxemburg – which has a smaller population than Bhutan – and Finland are also contesting two seats, for the Western European and Others Group.