Prime Minister Hun Sen pushed regional unity at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit yesterday, but criticism directed at Cambodia over the South China Sea ensured the dispute remained front and centre.
As heavily armed guards lined the streets outside the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, singers, dancers and an orchestra inside heralded the opening of Cambodia’s second summit as chair and the 20th in ASEAN’s 45-year-history.
During an impassioned opening speech, Hun Sen promoted a united ASEAN, focusing on doubling the existing regional currency fund to US$240 billion, as well as responding to the woes of the region’s migrant workers and closing a development gap between member states.
To deal with potential future economic crises, Hun Sen spoke of “strengthening and doubling the size of the current mechanism from US$120 billion to US$240 billion as soon as possible.”
The prime minister said the “free flow of labour” was an important part of an ASEAN Economic Community, which member states are aiming for by 2015.
“Even though this goal has not been fully achieved, indeed, the exchange of labour among ASEAN countries has already been robust. This highlights the need for strengthening cooperation among ASEAN members in order to protect the rights of migrant workers,” he said.
When it came to the issue of development – Cambodia is one of the poorest ASEAN nations – Hun Sen said the gap among member states “requires us to double our efforts to promote further growth and improve equitable distribution of the fruits of growth”.
Despite Hun Sen’s efforts to peddle regional unity, Cambodia’s commitment to it was questioned yesterday by a claim it was putting China first when it came to the South China Sea dispute.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, whose country is one of four ASEAN states involved in the dispute, claimed the Kingdom was pushing for China to join ASEAN nations in shaping a draft Code of Conduct for the disputed waters.
“The big disagreement this morning was the announcement by the [ASEAN] secretary-general that China might be invited to be part of the issue on the fundamentals and the drafting of the COC,” he said.
When asked if Cambodia had said during meetings yesterday that it wanted China involved in talks, del Rosario said: “I think so, yes.
“I haven’t heard from the other countries,” del Rosario added.
Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said ASEAN nations were clear that they wanted to discuss a COC collectively before taking it to China.
“There will be discussions [among] ASEAN on the first key elements of the COC, then there will be discussions between ASEAN and China,” he said.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand said ASEAN states “certainly welcome the interests of all participants, including China, to [discuss] the Code of Conduct”.
“It is an issue of concern not only within ASEAN but all over the region that we can manage our differences, and that [managing our differences] is what the [foreign] ministers were doing yesterday,” he said.
One topic that both leaders and the ASEAN secretariat were united on yesterday was the election in Myanmar, which received more glowing praise.
Myanmar president Thein Sein told ASEAN leaders that his country’s by-elections on Sunday were “transparent, fair and free”, Kao Kim Hourn said.
“The leaders of ASEAN have called for the lifting of all sanctions on Myanmar,” he added.
Marty Natalegawa, Indonesian foreign minister, said the time was right for the US and the EU to lift sanctions.
“If not now, when?” he asked.
Surin said the elections were a small step on a long journey for Myanmar.
“We want to see Myanmar succeed in this quest, and the ASEAN family is firmly behind Myanmar,” he said.
Elaborating on Hun Sen’s speech, Surin said ASEAN countries were ready to help each other on issues such as migrant workers.
“We move around a lot, and we would like to see more integration in ASEAN,” he said.
As for the doubling of the currency fund, Surin said money would come from each member state, likening it to a $1 trillion fund the EU had raised.
“When any member state needs the support, it will be there.”
Chheang Vanarith, executive director at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said he hoped Cambodia would continue encouraging ASEAN leaders to move towards an economic community by 2015 and said members should be committed to improving conditions for migrant workers.
Philippine, Thai and Indonesian civil society groups all boycotted yesterday’s meeting between civil society and ASEAN leaders, claiming elected delegates did not represent their views.