Big Summits, Old Problems  (Page 3 of 3)

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.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief