Will ASEAN Tackle South China Sea?


Ten years ago, Cambodia took over the chair of ASEAN for the first time amid consternation Phnom Penh was tackling too much too soon. The city’s infrastructure remained devastated by three decades of war that had just ended in 1998, and the global security environment had been turned upside down by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Cambodia was widely regarded as the regional basket case, and Phnom Penh hardly seemed the place for a gathering of heads of state, their foreign ministers and assorted bureaucrats from as far afield as the United States, China and Australia to those within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Thanks largely to efforts by diplomats in the Singapore embassy, however, the summit and Cambodia’s year as chair was carried off with aplomb. Next week, the annual ASEAN summit returns to a vastly improved Cambodia, with Burma – a contemporary regional basket case –at the top of the agenda.

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“Myanmar (Burma) isn’t in the official agenda of ASEAN, but regional leaders will use the gathering to discuss political development in Myanmar unofficially,” says Kamarulnizam Abdullah, a professor of national security at the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM.

“They are keen to know from their Myanmarese counterparts on the election process.”

This will follow weekend elections that will undoubtedly herald a march into parliament by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of democracy (NLD) and a managed float of the Kyat amid plans for Naypyidaw’s assumption of the ASEAN chair in 2014, a year ahead of the cherished dream of a fully integrated ASEAN Community.

Important will be the arrival of Burmese President Thein Sein. His election victory in 2010 was widely dismisses as rigged, but with the NLD’s backing of the by-elections, his position has been legitimized, raising the prospect that Western countries will start to lift crippling economic sanctions.

Suu Kyi has already claimed that widespread irregularities during this campaign were “really beyond what’s acceptable in a democratic nation.” But she was still prepared to proceed with the elections “because that’s what our people want”.

This will go a long way toward easing international tensions over the prospect of Burma hosting the ASEAN chair in 2014, just 12 months shy of ASEAN’s plans to declare itself a fully integrated community.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will chair the 20th ASEAN Summit, with three key documents declaring that ASEAN is one community, one destiny and drug free by 2015, expected to take pride of place.

“The proposed ASEAN community – this is the big agenda to reaffirm member countries’ commitment. ASEAN needs to ensure that members are fully geared up to the plan. Emphasis will also be given to the role of second and third track diplomacy in achieving the community idea,” Abdullah of UUM said.

Ray Leos, Dean of the Faculty of Communications and Media Arts at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, says the biggest issue confronting ASEAN integration is the yawning wealth gap.

“How can ASEAN realistically close the gap between the rich and poor countries by 2015?  What will be the form of this ASEAN integration? This is still not entirely clear, and we are less than three years away. It’s vital that this issue be addressed this year,” he says.

ASEAN at present consists of Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia,

Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Timor-Leste has been widely touted as the next member while Papua New Guinea has also indicated it would like to join the trade bloc.

Other issues include formulating a rapid regional response to disaster management, like the floods that struck Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam last year; pushing protocols to establish Southeast Asia as a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) and dispute management.

The true test of diplomatic skills lies with China and whether Cambodia is prepared to use its position as chair to back sovereign claims by Vietnam and the Philippines over the Paracel and Spratly islands against Beijing, which is a key financial supporter of Hun Sen’s government.

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