Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ASEAN and the "Chinese factor"

ASEAN and the "Chinese factor"

ASEAN and the "Chinese factor"

C AMBODIA'S cautious approach into ASEAN, initially as an observing "apprentice",

is the right one to take, according to academics in the region.

They warn

that just because ASEAN will soon be a bigger "family", that doesn't mean its

always going to be a happy one.

In addition to the seven full ASEAN

members (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei and

now Vietnam), Laos is a fellow observer and Canada, Australia, the European

Union, South Korea, Japan, the United States, China and New Zealand are

"dialogue partners". Papua New Guinea has also signed the critical ASEAN Treaty

of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TACSEA).

Cambodia realizes it

has much to do before making meaningful political and economic contributions to

the high-powered group.

But the very presence of Cambodia - and Vietnam -

in an expanded ASEAN will alter the dynamics of an economically powerful

region.

The biggest question mark is the "Chinese factor", as argued at a

forum in Phnom Penh in June by Dr Sorpong Peou, of Singapore's Canada-ASEAN

Center.

Dr Peou said that despite never having publicly objected to

Cambodia's integration into ASEAN, China had "legitimate" reasons to be

wary.

In the past China was "paranoid" about Vietnam trying to build up a

special relationship with Cambodia to keep China at bay, he said.

Dr Peou

said that despite Vietnam seeking better relations with China, it had also

searched for "new friends" such as the United States and ASEAN.

The

United States' own relations with China are presently at a low ebb following the

Taiwanese President's visit last month, and Washington recently normalizing

relations with Hanoi.

ASEAN, meanwhile, had historically leaned heavily

toward the Western capitalist bloc of the US, the EC and Japan - at least till

1991 - and was anti-communist, said Singapore University's senior political

lecturer, Dr Bilveer Singh.

Dr Peou said: "What all this suggests is that

in the eyes of China, Vietnam's moves to join ASEAN and to build normal

relations with the United States could be perceived as a means to contain

China."

Dr Peou said that in December 1994 Chinese representative Ji

Guoxing warned the six ASEAN members that "Vietnam is playing the international

card" in reference to their Spratley Islands dispute.

"In (Guoxing's)

view, 'China doesn't want to see the occurrence of such a situation that Vietnam

unites with ASEAN countries to deal with China in common. So it is better for

ASEAN to be cautious in satisfying Vietnam's demands in this

regard'."

Put in this context, Dr Peou said, Cambodia's desire to join

ASEAN "may not be very pleasing to China".

"Historically, China has

always viewed (Cambodia) as an effective check on Vietnam's expansionism and as

a counter-weight to (Vietnam's) challenge to (Chinese) authority in the

region."

"... an expanded ASEAN with both Vietnam and Cambodia as members

would no doubt add to China's long-term anxieties and

apprehension."

Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy Vice President Thach Bunroeun

said Cambodia had historically relied on the support of at least one outside

power "and China is still our friend."

Dr Bunroeun said: "Vietnam will no

longer be speaking as Vietnam but as a member of ASEAN."

However, Dr Peou

- though pointing out that Cambodia relies heavily on foreign economic aid -

said that Cambodia must lose that dependence on "one great power" in favor of a

regional ASEAN "shield".

Dr Peou said that China would not try to

prevent Cambodia from joining ASEAN, however. "First and foremost, Beijing is

more interested in peace and stability inside Cambodia than seeing it in a

volatile situation. China has been... consistent in arguing that Cambodia should

be left alone to decide its own destiny," he said.

Chinese Foreign

Minister Qian Qichen had told Prince Norodom Sirivudh, who was then Cambodian

Foreign Minister, that China did not challenge any development in Cambodia's

relationship with foreign countries.

Secondly, Dr Peou said, it was

unlikely that ASEAN members could become "structurally cohesive" to "gang up on

China". Beijing was not "blind to the political realities exhibited by the...

intra-mural tensions between ASEAN members," he said.

Third, Dr Peou said

that China was more interested in building closer relations with ASEAN, for fear

of actually driving the group into collective action.

ASEAN was also

China's fifth largest trading partner, and Sino-ASEAN trade is set to double to

$20 billion by 2000.

"If China can pass the test of sincerity in its

professed commitment to the policy of peaceful co-existence by not militarily

threatening any of the ASEAN states, an expanded ASEAN would not pose a credible

challenge to its regional power status," Dr Peou said.

However, with the

"realignment of forces not taking a predictable shape, it is imperative that a

territorially irredentist China's geo-strategic interests be identified and

studied more carefully," he said.

Many Asian states are building up their

navies to deal with overlapping maritime claims, and "several Asian states may

be compelled to pursue a policy that will serve their own national security

interests at the expense of common security," Dr Peou said.

ASEAN

"dialogue members" all supported an expanded ASEAN, and would therefore welcome

Cambodia's signature.

"An expanded ASEAN may not be readily translated

to mean that Asia will soon become a 'common village' or 'one happy family'

where all fellow members can share the joy of harmonious relations," Dr Peou

said.

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