C AMBODIA'S cautious approach into ASEAN, initially as an observing "apprentice",
is the right one to take, according to academics in the region.
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
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
Dr Peou said that despite never having publicly objected to
Cambodia's integration into ASEAN, China had "legitimate" reasons to be
In the past China was "paranoid" about Vietnam trying to build up a
special relationship with Cambodia to keep China at bay, he said.
said that despite Vietnam seeking better relations with China, it had also
searched for "new friends" such as the United States and ASEAN.
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
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.
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
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
"... an expanded ASEAN with both Vietnam and Cambodia as members
would no doubt add to China's long-term anxieties and
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.
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.
"dialogue members" all supported an expanded ASEAN, and would therefore welcome
"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