The official theme for Cambodia’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is “One Community, One Destiny” – but the outcomes of this year’s meetings highlighted the bloc’s growing divisions on the issue of China.
Last week in the Cambodian capital, the Foreign ministers’ meeting came to an acrimonious end when delegates from the 10-member bloc failed to issue their customary joint communique – the first time they have failed to do so in Asean’s 45-year history – after disagreements over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over most of the resource-rich sea, but four Asean nations – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and
Brunei – have advanced competing claims. Last week’s meetings were overshadowed by a flare-up over a group of islands known as the Scarborough Shoal, a fish-rich reef claimed by both China and the Philippines. The two countries had a military stand-off over the shoal earlier this year, sending ships to the area.
During Asean talks on the creation of a Code of Conduct, which would govern the behavior of ships in the disputed maritime areas, Manila tried to insert reference to the Scarborough Shoal, but claims it was blocked by Cambodia – a close ally of China. Asean Secretary general Surin Pitsuwan called the meeting’s outcome “very disappointing”, while Indonesian Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said it was “utterly irresponsible” that the grouping could not come up with a joint statement on the South China Sea dispute.
Cambodian Foreign minister Hor Namhong blamed unnamed “member countries” for trying to forcibly include a mention of the Scarborough Shoal issue in the final communique. He called these requests “unacceptable”, and laid the blame for the breakdown on “the whole of Asean”.
In response, the Philippines said in a statement that “it deplore[d] the non-issuance of a joint communique” and took “strong exception” to Cambodia’s actions, arguing that they undermined previous agreements to tackle the South China Sea disputes as a unified bloc – rather than bilaterally, as China would prefer. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told Bloomberg that the impasse was a result of Chinese “pressure, duplicity [and] intimidation”.
Similar tensions were also apparent at the annual Asean Summit in April, when Cambodia kept the South China Sea dispute off the official agenda. Some analysts suggested that Chinese President Hu Jintao, who arrived on a high-profile state visit just days before the opening of the summit, had pressured Phnom Penh over the issue.
The recent tensions highlight just how far Chinese influence has increased in Cambodia in recent years. Beijing’s offers of hefty amounts of loans and investment dollars unconstrained by human-rights or good governance concerns has been eagerly taken up by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who resents the conditions often attached to Western aid.
Chinese state banks today bankroll the construction of roads, bridges, hydropower dams, real estate developments and tourist resorts in Cambodia. Over the past decade, these loans and grants have run into the billions of US dollars, and official delegations shuttle back and forth between the two countries each year.
Despite Hun Sen’s claims that China’s support is offered without strings, Beijing’s economic clout has bought the country considerable political leverage in Cambodia. This was dramatically demonstrated in December 2009 when Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers to China. The timing of the deportation – a day before the arrival of a Chinese official carrying a $1.2 billion package of grants and loan agreements – left few in doubt that extreme pressure was brought to bear on Phnom Penh.
This unspoken quid pro quo arrangement extends back as far as July 1997, when Hun Sen ousted his rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a bloody factional coup. Unlike many Western countries, which balked at the bloodshed in Phnom Penh, China immediately recognised the status quo and offered military aid. Hun Sen reciprocated by shuttering the Taiwanese representative’s office in Phnom Penh after accusing Taiwanese elements of providing support to his rivals, and in the years since has frequently voiced support for the One-China policy.
“I think it’s very difficult to deny there are no strings attached to Chinese aid and economic assistance in Cambodia,” said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst based in Phnom Penh. “The attitude and position taken by Cambodia at the last [Asean] meeting shows that it was toeing the Chinese line.”
Asean, a regional grouping built on the premise of safeguarding Southeast Asian interests from outside pressure or interference, now faces an uncertain year.
Analysts say the disappointing end to last week’s foreign ministers’ meeting could undermine Asean unity on the vital South China Sea issue, making it that much more difficult to negotiate a Code of Conduct with China.
“Cambodia’s single act of obstinacy is a reflection of China’s influence and not Cambodian interests,” said Carlyle Thayer, an analyst at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Sydney, adding that it would likely “poison” Asean proceedings until the next round of summits in November.
However, the dispute could potentially have deeper implications for Asean, cracking its unity and exacerbating the differences between the grouping’s widely diverse member states.
The bloc was founded in 1967 as a bulwark against the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as members. During the 1970s and ’80s it played a strong role in the US-led isolation of communist Vietnam, and, after 1979, the Cambodian government installed by Hanoi after the overthrow of the murderous regime led by the Khmer Rouge. The end of the Cold War brought an end to the overt anti-communist posture of Asean, which was eventually expanded to include Vietnam (1995), Laos and Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999).
But tensions have remained between the old and new members. In 2007, Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, identified a division between Asean’s original member states and the poorer nations that joined in the 1990s. According to a leaked cable from the US Embassy in Singapore, Lee told US officials that Asean should not have admitted Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam as members, fearful that some might act as a pro-Chinese fifth column within Asean.
“The older members of Asean shared common values and an antipathy to communism,” the cable states, quoting Lee’s views. “Those values had been ‘muddied’ by the new members, and their economic and social problems made it doubtful they would ever behave like the older Asean members.”
Lee particularly focused on Laos, describing it as an “outpost” of China that reported back to Beijing on the content of all Asean meetings – but he could easily have mentioned Cambodia, which is quickly becoming China’s most dependable ally in the region.
Thayer said last week’s imbroglio, after years of pro-unity rhetoric, was “the first major breach of the dyke of regional autonomy” created by Asean. “China has now reached into Asean’s inner sanctum and played on intra-Asean divisions,” he said.
In the worst-case scenario, he added, continuing disagreement could undermine the creation of the planned Asean Political-Security Community and potentially raise the specter of a de facto division between the mainland Southeast Asian states – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar – and Asean’s maritime states. “I don’t know how this rift is going to be overcome,” he said.
It is too soon to say whether last week’s stand-off will sound the death knell for Asean’s “One Community” pledge. Lao Mong Hay, for one, believes there are “serious leaders [in Asean] who will set out to repair the damage”. But it is quickly becoming apparent that Phnom Penh’s dependence on Chinese loans and grants is a development with regional implications.