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Don’t blame Cambodia for ASEAN bust-up…SEATO’s Pinoy tantrum?

Bangkokpost, 24 Jul 2012

ASEAN allegiance to feeding hands

There is no bigger news in Asean these days than the collapse of efforts to produce a joint communique after the recent 45th ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh. Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of host Cambodia but that misses the larger point.

The failure to issue a communique was the first in the history of the 10-member organisation that prides itself on harmony and consensus. Some observers have begun to question what Cambodia was doing as the ASEAN chair this year.(Sic!)

What happened in Phnom Penh, in a nutshell, was that one country’s fear of offending China somehow managed to trump all the others’ desire to send Beijing a stern message about its behaviour in the South China Sea.

The fact is, people could have seen this bust-up coming. During the April summit, Cambodia nearly managed to singlehandedly derail efforts to discuss a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea.

Prime Minister Hun Sen spent nearly an hour trying to explain to journalists how important China was to the region, but the others prevailed and the code of conduct was deliberated. It was hoped at the time that the July meeting would build on that progress.

Hun Sen’s defence of Beijing in April came just days after Chinese President Hu Jintao had visited Cambodia. Indeed, had the April summit collapsed, it would have been much easier to point the finger of blame.

The Cambodian premier in the past has praised China’s approach to giving money with no strings attached. Perhaps he’s annoyed that some other members of the “international donor community” want some accounting for the billions of dollars they have spent helping one of the world’s sorriest basket cases become a functioning economy.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Cambodia has little to lose by ditching the long-term interests of Asean for the short-term benefits it can receive by siding with China. Other politicians with short-term vested interests and patrons in Beijing would probably do the same.

Apart from this, the region itself is so intertwined with China that it is difficult to separate and not be influenced by the goliath to the north. At the heart of recent tensions has been the Spratly Islands, in which Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim some interest, apart from China and Taiwan.

Therefore putting all the blame on Cambodia is not entirely fair. Instead it should be said that China is the culprit.

China, it seems, has learned its lessons well from the colonial powers of a bygone era. A divide-and-rule strategy works well in Asean, where Beijing can exploit the wide gap between rich and poor nations with some well-placed giveaways. No wonder Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei described the historic debacle of the meeting as “positive”.

Cambodia is hardly the first country that has gone out of its way to stay in China’s good books, and it won’t be the last. In 2014 the Asean chairmanship shifts to Myanmar, which was a client state of China when the military junta was in charge.

Beijing has poured billions into infrastructure in Myanmar, but the new government now aims to counter China’s influence by putting out the welcome mat to investors from all over the world.

Even Thailand, much higher up the development ladder, has relied heavily on support from China for big projects, an ambitious new rail network the most recent case in point.

So why then should we blame only Cambodia for the cracks in Asean’s harmonious facade? Blame China if you want, but also blame ourselves, Asean citizens and leaders, for not sticking together, especially on an issue that involves four of Asean’s 10 member states.

Finally, blame the way Asean works, and the obsession with “consensus” that sometimes flies in the face of reality. What’s so wrong with adopting decisions based on the wishes of the majority? There may be times when members have to sideline a few bad actors so they can’t derail efforts to work for the benefit of the 600 million-plus other citizens of the region.

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Written by Kham

24/07/2012 at 7:11 pm

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