Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Editorial: Cambodia has put Asean's future in jeopardy

In an unprecedented and damaging move, the group's chair pursues self-interest ahead of regional solidarity

Thanks to its single-mindedness, Cambodia has literally brought Asean to its knees. In the organisation's 45-year history, its foreign ministers have never failed to issue a joint communique - however vague or noncommittal - after their deliberations. In the past there have been plenty of rough times and many disagreements - not least during the Cambodian conflict. But they have never ended like this.

This time around, Cambodia, as the Asean chair, has taken an uncompromising stand on the issue of the South China Sea. Instead of trying to find common ground among all concerned

parties, as the Asean chair has done in the past, the chair decided to put its national interest ahead of the grouping's solidarity. In the long run, it will backfire on Cambodia and Asean as a whole.

It could also hurt Cambodia's bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council next year. It will be interesting to see how the Philippines reacts. Sooner rather than later, Cambodia will realise that its action has jeopardised the grouping's credibility.

In the absence of a joint communique on the deliberations, action cannot be taken on dozens of decisions because there is no official record, and the Asean Secretariat will not be able to do anything about it. Asean will need to take immediate remedial action.

Since its period of enlargement from 1995-1999, more than officials would like to admit, Asean's ethos and way of doing things has changed tremendously due to new members' different political backgrounds and habits. Only Cambodia went through serious

difficulties in joining Asean due to its troubled history. Therefore, it was the last member to be admitted, in 1999. Asean had wanted all new members from the Asean-10 admitted by 1997. Since Cambodia joined, Asean has quickly developed new relations with China, once Phnom Penh's nemesis.

China was the key supporter of the Khmer Rouge, which fought the Phnom Penh government from 1979 until well after the United Nations intervened to stage elections in the country in 1993.

For the past 12 years, Cambodia and China have built up their bilateral ties and cemented cooperation and friendship as never before. As it has with the rest of Asean's members, China has developed a close relationship with Cambodia. But somehow, Cambodia-China relations have gone a bit further than the rest.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen knows China would be of great assistance in propelling the country's economic development and its standing in the region. As the longest-reigning leader in the region, Hun Sen wants to be recognised as a leader who has brought peace and prosperity to his country and also the region. After all, it was the Cambodian conflict that threatened the region's stability previously.

Since Cambodia took the chair of Asean, Asean-China relations have come under the world's microscope. The rows over the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, especially those involving China, the Philippines and Vietnam, have all reared their ugly heads at about the same time.

The Philippines has gone ballistic against China over the Scarborough Shoals - known as Huanyan Island in China - in the past several months. Manila has engaged its key ally, Washington, to increase its defence capacity.

Vietnam and China are also at each other's throats over their claims on the Spratly Islands. Each side has chosen different manoeuvring tactics. But like it or not, it has always been the Asean chair that can make or break any sensitive topic.

Asean's unity and solidarity is of the utmost importance for the grouping's survival and the preservation of its bargaining power. If each Asean member dwells on its own interest - as Cambodia has - then Asean has no future. The group's consensus and non-interference policies allow each member to pursue their own interests. But there is no Asean principle that allows the rotating chair to take things into its own hands without considering the voice of the majority.

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