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ASEAN struggles for unity

It is not often that a junior member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations kicks the rest of the group in the teeth and then walks off waving a middle finger in the air.

But by a combination of deceit, obstinacy and the unprecedented largesse of its Chinese benefactor, that is what Cambodia did 10 days ago at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh.

And that may be an understatement when all the facts are considered and the visceral rancour with which the group’s exasperated members went at each other’s throats is fully appreciated.

For sure, ASEAN is unlikely ever to be the same again, and its future existence, at least in its current form, is now debatable.

Global headlines like “Cambodia: The Wrecker of ASEAN Unity” and others even more censorious reflect the gravity of the situation.

As does the way the region’s top diplomat, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, jetted off afterwards on a desperate mission to salvage ASEAN cohesion.

He went first to Manila and Hanoi, where government leaders were enraged at Cambodia’s performance; then he went on to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to try to calm their nerves.

On Friday, thanks to Marty’s efforts alone, ASEAN was able to issue a belated statement a week after the conference had ended – but it was one that merely papered over the earlier disagreements.

Recall that back in January, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed that as this year’s ASEAN chairman, Cambodia would be a neutral mediator in regional disputes such as the South China Sea.

That was never going to be easy, particularly as Beijing insists that it owns virtually the entire sea, while four group members claim large parts of it.

In April, at the first summit under its gavel, Cambodia ignored this earlier promise and instead took Beijing’s side and tried to keep the South China Sea issue off the agenda.

It worked up to a point. In public meetings it was not raised, but in private it was intensely discussed.

So, as this column forecast, the topic was certain to be heatedly discussed “at the ministerial meetings in July and the leaders’ summit in November. Prepare for fireworks”.

The pyrotechnics duly came this month when some analysts claimed China had again told its proxy to sideline the South China Sea issue – actually, they alleged that it had paid Cambodia to do this by means of large investments.

They noted that even the Peace Palace, where the ministerial conference was held, was funded by Beijing.

Thus, like the 2009 repatriation of Uigher refugees and the return of fugitive Frenchman Patrick Devillers this month, Cambodia had little option but to obey its Chinese paymaster and stiff its ASEAN colleagues.

Four of those colleagues, at the end of the conference, drafted a 132-paragraph closing communiqué which mentioned all the topics discussed, including the maritime sovereignty disputes.

When that draft was submitted to the chair, the Cambodians, in a breach of ASEAN protocol, showed it to the Chinese, who said it was unacceptable unless the South China Sea reference was removed.

So the Cambodians sent it back for amendment.

The Philippines and Vietnam, supported by all other members except Laos and Myanmar, refused to accept this Chinese-mandated decision to doctor their group’s statement.

So for the first time in 45 years, no communiqué was issued at the end of an ASEAN ministerial meeting – although thanks to Marty, a face-saving statement was cobbled together a week later.

All told, said Ernest Bower, Southeast Asia Programme director at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington: “This was a spectacular failure for the regional grouping.”

Added Don Emmerson, head of the Southeast Asia Forum at California’s Stanford University: “An observer might conclude that China has effectively hired the Cambodian government to do its bidding.”

In doing so, it has caused the first major breach of the dyke of regional autonomy and that may well render the creation of a planned ASEAN Community in 2015 dead in the water – pun intended.

Contact our regional insider Roger at rogermitton@gmail.com

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