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ASEAN summit set to begin

Talks on climate and the economy are on the cards, but political issues loom.

ASEAN leaders including Prime Minister Hun Sen will gather for the 16th summit of the regional bloc in Hanoi today, where the challenge of establishing a more powerful partnership in the face of broad political and economic differences will weigh on their deliberations.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said that at the conclusion of the summit on Friday, the leaders will produce “two main statements” – one on climate change and another on economic recovery.

The draft statement on economic recovery, according to Reuters, calls for coordinated action in maintaining expansionary policies until private-sector demand returns.

Discussions on climate change, meanwhile, will likely focus on adaptability efforts in the highly vulnerable region, as well as the push by Indonesia to get more ASEAN members to submit emissions-reduction targets as stipulated in last year’s Copenhagen Accord. Indonesia and Singapore are the only ASEAN nations to have adopted the non-binding accord thus far.

Issues such as security cooperation and the recently adopted China-ASEAN Free Trade Area will likely also figure into discussions, said political observer Chheang Vannarith, as ASEAN works towards its stated goal, similar to the European Union’s, of securing unified political and economic policies by 2015.

However, as the delegates put the finishing touches on their declarations, contentious political issues will be competing for their attention.
This was the case at the last ASEAN summit – held last October in Thailand – at which Hun Sen provoked the ire of his Thai hosts by comparing fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Myanmar dissident icon Aung San Suu Kyi and suggesting that Thaksin would be appointed his economic adviser.

In the diplomatic fallout from Hun Sen’s remarks and Thaksin’s subsequent appointment, Thailand recalled its ambassador to the Kingdom, and Cambodia responded in kind.

Hun Sen has since launched a steady stream of criticism at the government of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, though at a meeting of the Mekong River Commission earlier this week, the two showed that they may be ready to return to more amiable relations, and Hun Sen pledged not to allow Thaksin to visit Cambodia during the ongoing antigovernment protests in Thailand.

Koy Kuong and Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn did not comment on whether meetings in Hanoi might prompt a return to normal relations, though Panitan said the “agreement or the cooperation that we had in the Mekong River meeting will also be part of the cooperation in ASEAN”.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan has urged Thailand and Cambodia to exercise “restraint” in the course of their dispute, but the body has otherwise adhered to its traditional policy of non-interference with respect to the matter.

However, if ASEAN hopes to increase its global relevance, it must take a more assertive approach to these sorts of political issues, said Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

“Prefer it or not, ASEAN member countries need to reform politically,” Chheang Vannarith said in an email, predicting that the body will increasingly press its members to make such reforms.

“Constructive engagement and more assertive demands will be applied to challenge the traditional way of ASEAN,” he said.
A high-profile test of ASEAN’s advocacy capability will come with its approach to the elections scheduled for later this year in Myanmar. An election law announced last month that bans jailed Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from taking part in the poll has drawn criticism from more democratic members of ASEAN such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Chris Roberts, a lecturer in international relations and Asian studies at the University of Canberra, said the great political divergence among ASEAN governments, which range from communist to monarchical to democratic, “equates to a gap in regional values as well”.

Though ASEAN may be effective in building limited consensus on economic and security-related issues, Roberts said, the bloc’s more authoritarian members will likely block efforts to give it a broader mandate in foreign policy and human rights.

“The level of power given to ASEAN as an institution – that’s where it gets difficult,” Roberts said. “I do think it’s perhaps reached its limit until other countries’ political systems evolve further.”

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