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Summits for sale?

/ 10:49 PM November 23, 2012

“ONCE AGAIN, Cambodia tried to pull a fast one on the Philippines and other Asean countries involved in territorial disputes with China,” the Inquirer noted in Thursday’s editorial on the just concluded 21st Asean Summit in Phnom Penh.

President Aquino bluntly rejected Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s conference summary claiming that Asean members had agreed that negotiations on conflicting maritime claims “would be held within an Asean-China framework”—i.e., they would not be internationalized. Mr. Aquino made it clear that there was no agreement on “an exclusive Asean framework,” the Inquirer reported. “We depend on international law and the United Nations.”

“A multilateral problem does not lend itself to a solution on a bilateral basis,” Mr. Aquino added in a press interview at the summit sidelines. “If you cross national borders, then it becomes an international situation. [It could] come through the international tribunal on the laws of the sea. That makes it another new entity.”


Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also bucked efforts by Cambodia to shove discussions on the South China Sea issue under the rug. Tokyo rebutted Cambodian foreign ministry official Kao Kim Hourn’s claim that Asean countries “will not internationalize the South China Sea.”

“Representatives of other [Asean] countries disputed the Cambodian statement,” wrote Jan Perlez of the New York Times. He wrote that Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore pointed out this inaccuracy to Hun Sen  when the draft was circulated, a conference source indicated. They were not corrected in the final draft so these countries wrote officially to insist on the changes.

“As far as sovereignty claims [are concerned], those have to be resolved among the claimant states themselves,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, adding: “Asean counsels, moderation and restraint, and we try to work toward a Code of Conduct as the next step. The international community has a [vital] interest… The South China Sea issue isn’t going to stop the claimant states from working with one another.”

“Fool me once, shame on you,” the old saw  goes. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” Summit-gagging  was foreshadowed at the July meeting of Asean foreign ministers. Vietnam and  the Philippines suggested that the  traditional final communiqué mention the South China Sea disputes. Phnom Penh resisted.

For the first time in 45 years, the Asean meeting was adjourned without a communiqué. Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa had to mount an emergency mission to patch up the holes that Cambodia punched into  Asean unity on behalf of China.

“China bought the chair, simple as that,” said a diplomat, who declined to be identified publicly according to usual protocol, the New York Times reported then. As host for Asean, “Cambodia  refused to play the customary role of seeking agreement among the 10 participating countries, thus undermining the possibility of an accord.”

The diplomat pointed to a report by China’s state news agency, Xinhua, where the country’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, was quoted as thanking Cambodia’s prime minister for supporting China’s “core interests.”

Today’s controversy is  more than just Hun Sen being a Khmer Rouge running true to form. It is true that he emerged after the Pol Pot terror of the 1970s, lost the 1993 election, but muscled his way into power and—surprise—staged a coup, as Banyan in the Economist notes. “Today, most  villages, where four-fifths of Cambodia’s 14 million people live, have schools bearing his name.” And one-man rule prevails.


In October, American congressmen wrote to President Barack Obama “to take Hun Sen to task” when he visited in Phnom Penh. Obama did just that last Monday, Reuters reports. In “tense talks,” Obama stressed to Hun Sen the need for Cambodia to move toward free, fair elections, and the need for an independent poll commission associated with those elections. “He also called for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate.”

Concerns over human rights were exaggerated, Hun Sen scoffed. “Cambodia had a better record than many countries.” On Cambodia’s IOU of more than $370 million, he offered to repay 30 percent. This was “a compromise” since the loan “had been used by a pro-American government in the 1970s to repress its own people.”

He waved away a campaign in Europe’s Parliament to remove Cambodia’s “everything but arms” duty-free access to the EU. A particular target is “blood sugar”—Cambodian sugarcane allegedly produced on grabbed land.

“Money can make demons turn and grind stones,” says a Chinese  proverb. At $2 billion, Chinese investment in Cambodia is “twice the combined total invested by fellow Asean countries,” a Reuters report estimates. Just before the summit, more than half a billion dollars in Chinese loans, grants and gifts were released to Phnom Penh in just three months.

Paradoxically, Burma (Myanmar) is now emerging from being the pariah of Asean to its most promising member. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of Parliament and opposition prisoners have been released, press freedom restored, economic isolation dropped—and Chinese-stooge status scrapped.

Within Asean, however, China has a vote, albeit with a Cambodian accent. In any Asean capital, like Jakarta or Bangkok, Beijing has two embassies: an official one and, across the road, a de facto clone in the Cambodian embassy. Can Asean still craft a code of  conduct for troubled  seas—which Cambodia already peddled last year?


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TAGS: Asean, column, Diplomacy, Juan L. Mercado, territorial disputes
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