Outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao returned to Beijing this week office after disappointing ASEAN and East Asia summits that failed to live-up to years of diplomatic posturing and positioning, designed to protect his country’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
The pro-Beijing lobby will no doubt praise his efforts in Cambodia where China successfully thwarted attempts by Southeast Asian countries to unite on the South China Sea issue.
But behind closed doors the honest power-brokers will be forced to admit that at best Beijing achieved a year-long stalemate before a significant political shift within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will not be to its liking.
Wen’s departure also signaled an ignoble end to Cambodia’s controversial year as chair of ASEAN, marked by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s extraordinary efforts to please Beijing that exposed deep and acrimonious divisions within the 10-member bloc.
China has invested heavily in Cambodia with Chinese companies investing $8.2 billion in the poverty-stricken country since 2006 alone, not to mention the billions in aids and soft loans that Beijing has given to Hun Sen’s government with no strings attached.
Such magnanimity is rare but seemed questionable over the last six months with China leaning on Phnom Penh to protect Beijing’s interests within ASEAN on the thorny issue of the Spratly and Paracel islands.
China claims almost the entire resource rich South China Sea, including the Paracel islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. The Spratly Islands and the sea lanes of communications, where half the world’s trade passes, are claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines.
From the outset Cambodia tried to paper over the cracks that first appeared at an ASEAN summit in July by publicly announcing that Southeast Asian delegates had early on unanimously agreed to not “internationalize” the festering dispute.
However, the Philippines immediately refuted the claim saying it held an inherent right to defend its interests. Sources also said Vietnam was upset by the statement and was thoroughly annoyed with Cambodia for attempting the maneuver, while Malaysia and Brunei stayed coy.
Comments from the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who said there “was a difference in emphasis and views” on the issue, were also insightful.
China does not want the dispute heard before an international court and insists that negotiations with members of ASEAN be held on a bilateral basis through a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC), which has been discussed for the last decade. Currently, a preliminary, non-legally binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is in place.
The COC would be legally binding and would govern tensions between the claimants to the South China Sea while the parties conduct further negotiations aimed at reaching final agreements on the sovereignty issues.
The Philippines and Vietnam, however, want ASEAN to present a united front to China in multilateral negotiations, which would also suit the interests of the two other ASEAN claimants, Malaysia and Brunei.
It remains unlikely that small countries like Brunei would ever be in a diplomatic position to negotiate with China squarely over territorial claims.
As the summit ended it appeared that, at least for the time being, neither China nor the Philippines and Vietnam China would not have its way in terms of negotiating the various disputes. Furthermore, Cambodia’s advocacy of China’s position again led to charges that Phnom Penh was giving China’s interests priority over those of the ASEAN bloc.
But as ASEAN turns on an annual basis, so does its agenda. Brunei will be the next chair of ASEAN and the new ASEAN Secretary-General, Le Luong Minh, is from Vietnam, while Thailand – seen as fairly neutral in the dispute – has been elected as country coordinator on the issue.
This represents a significant political shift within the bloc — away from the Cambodian attempt to lead a pro-China lobby and curry favor with Beijing — towards ASEAN members with stakes in the dispute.
A united ASEAN approach to China is now a distinct possibility, leaving Wen Jiabao with the task of trying to put the best face on the issue.
He said China had stood by Cambodia in order to promote Asian unity adding that China and ASEAN had “the wisdom and capability” to handle the dispute and territorial claims in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam, without extra-regional intervention.
“Handling differences and conflicts in the ASEAN way, which is to put aside disputes and enhance consensus, is an effective guarantee for promoting cooperation,” he said.
He was ably supported by a foreign ministry spokesman who insisted that Cambodia’s stance as chair of ASEAN had not damaged unity within the group, going so far as to claim, erroneously, that, “Cambodia’s efforts are to safeguard ASEAN.”
The East Asia summit comprises the 10 nations of ASEAN and leaders of China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The developments during the summit where closely monitored by the U.S. delegation that was led this year by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cambodia.
The United States has been vying with China for influence in Southeast Asia – a region that is experiencing unprecedented growth and making the most of its military strategic positioning – even before Washington announced its famous “pivot” or “rebalancing” back into the region late last year.
Maritime security was raised by Obama whose visit was also part of a whistle-stop tour of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, less than two weeks after winning a second term as president.
As U.S. delegates focused on initiatives including food security, the global economy and weapons nonproliferation, Obama also championed human rights in “tense” talks with Hun Sen.
Obama pressed Hun Sen on human rights for nearly the entire meeting with the Cambodian leader, warning that deeper engagement with the U.S. would require an improvement in Cambodia’s record on these issues. Hun Sen, in turn, insisted that no political prisoners were being held in this country, despite a recent report by Human Rights Watch which detailed 300 deaths it claimed had been politically motivated.
“In particular, I would say the need for them to move toward elections that are fair and free, the need for an independent election commission associated with those elections, the need to allow for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate,” U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said of Obama’s meeting at a later briefing.
The two summits were not without their small success, however. ASEAN did finalize its declaration on human rights, for example, while also approving the creation of a land mine clearing center and pushing ahead with trade pacts.
However, leaders largely side-stepped the most contentious issues facing the bloc, not only the South China Sea but also Laos’ plans to dam the mainstream of the Mekong River and efforts to forge an Integrated Economic Community – based in part on the EU model – by 2015.
It was a difficult year for ASEAN, a group forged out of mutual interests and one that prides itself on non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.
In the Cambodian camp, the relief that its year as chair is over was palpable, with Hun Sen shedding a tear at the final press conference, saying he just wanted to go home to be his wife.