Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Will ASEAN Tackle South China Sea?

Burma is likely to be the main talking point at next week’s ASEAN summit. But will they dare tackle China’s territorial claims?

Luke Hunt

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.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

The islands fall well outside China’s maritime borders and within the geographical limits of neighboring countries. Despite this, China has made it clear in recent years that it wants to negotiate control of the islands, and on a bilateral basis – not within the realm of ASEAN.

Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have varying claims over the Spratly and Paracel chains.

The islands are covered by the 1960 U.S.-Japan treaty of Mutual Cooperation and weren’t contested for more than 50 years after World War II, when Beijing was receiving soft loans from Tokyo as part of post-war reparations.

Last year, ASEAN and China agreed to heed the guidelines on implementing the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a document that provides a framework for future deliberations on territorial claims on the islands, but observers were hardly impressed given it was initially signed back in 2002.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is currently in Cambodia on a four-day friendship visit ahead of the summit. It’s the first visit by a Chinese head of state in 12 years, and sources have said he will emphasize that the nature of Chinese aid is no strings attached but that China expects Cambodia to maintain a neutral position as a mediator in the Spratlys dispute.

“Regarding the relationship with China and Vietnam…a very sensitive issue for Cambodia for obvious reasons,” Leos says.

“Another big issue I see is whether Cambodia as chair of ASEAN will use that position to lobby for or advance the interests of the so called LCMV – Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam – or lesser developed countries of ASEAN. And if it does do so, what will it do?”

“This will be very interesting to see,” he adds.

Diplomatic flaps will test Phnom Penh’s relations with its neighbors, but in a broader sense this ASEAN summit will also allow Cambodia to show it has come of age – despite chronic corruption and disputes over land, workers’ rights and a culture of impunity among the recently moneyed class.

“I remember the Phnom Penh of 2002, with darkened and unpaved streets, and power outages three, sometimes four times a week. Except for some of the expat watering holes, the city was pretty much dead quiet after 9pm, even on weekends,” Leos says.

Since then, billions of dollars of investment and development have come in, streets are paved and lit, the city infrastructure has improved, there are fewer power outages, and high rises are starting to dot city’s skyline.

“You see businesses open, people on the streets and residents sitting in front of their homes, chatting with their neighbors until late in the evening – much has changed,” he adds.

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Whether Cambodia’s diplomatic skills have been sharpened to a similar point, though, remains to be seen.