Asean left on a knife-edge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2012, 12:00am


As the dust settles from an Asean meeting last week marked by unprecedented rancour over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the focus of those pondering the future of the grouping is settling on two words: Hun Sen.

In November, the Cambodian prime minister will host his counterparts from Southeast Asia and beyond - including President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama - for the East Asia Summit.

And after the historic failure of last week's sessions to produce a communique amid a bitter struggle over its role in the disputes, some regional envoys are wondering whether Hun Sen will sow further discord.

Last week's breakdown in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - a body that is supposed to cherish unity and consensus - saw Hun Sen's long-serving foreign minister, Hor Namhong, accused by rival diplomats of 'doing China's bidding' in shattering the chances of a common position on the South China Sea.

The atmosphere risks poisoning upcoming talks between China and Asean on a long-awaited code of conduct to better control intensifying tensions in the South China Sea - which is rich in oil and gas and one of the world's most crucial waterways.

Having failed in a last-ditch attempt to secure a communique last Friday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa - representing Southeast Asia's largest nation - was this week shuttling between Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Manila to salvage something from a week of tension.

A hastily-arranged common statement issued last night in place of the failed communique- backed by Cambodian warnings that two unnamed countries were to blame - appears to have only highlighted the divisions now exposed across the region, analysts believe.

Getting more co-operation from Hun Sen will be crucial if internal Asean tensions to be eased as Cambodia serves out its year as the grouping's chair.

Having held power, one way or another, through Cambodia's transition to a democracy since 1985, Hun Sen is sometimes described as Asia's last strongman. By turns prickly, contrarian and difficult to predict, he's never been accused of being a statesman, yet no one underestimates his shrewdness or cunning.

An accomplished chess player in private, Hun Sen is also known as a master player of bigger powers, constantly keeping his neighbours slightly off balance.

In recent years, Beijing has become Cambodia's biggest trade, aid and military partner, outspending the US by a factor of 10. The opulent Peace Palace where Hun Sen met the Asean foreign ministers - one of the biggest buildings in downtown Phnom Penh - is among the many symbols of Chinese loans and investments now visible in Cambodia.

Yet Hun Sen has also successfully buttressed relations with Washington, and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is promising greater aid commitments. The state of his ties with his old patron - Hanoi - is murkier, however.

A deputy regimental commander in the Khmer Rouge, who lost an eye on the day the ultra-Maoists took Phnom Penh in April 1975 to launch a genocidal experiment in extreme Maoism, Hun Sen fled its purges two years later by crossing into Vietnam. Hanoi trained him and installed him in Cambodia's government after their invasion in late 1978 to drive their former fraternal allies from power. At 27, Hun Sen was the world's youngest foreign minister. All these years later, he is now the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia.

In April, he bristled at suggestions from foreign scholars that he was now in China's pocket.

'What I hate and am fed up with is talk about Cambodia working China and must be under some kind of influence. That is completely wrong,' he said.

Several foreign analysts and scholars, however, have noted that China's pre-meeting rhetoric and intense lobbying of Cambodia suggested that Beijing was determined to undermine Asean unity. Certainly, statements from officials and the state press in recent days do little to shift that view.

As diplomats staged a last-ditch bid to avert the failure to produce a communique last Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin spoke of 'productive' talks in Phnom Penh. He said 'China's views and position on many issues have won the appreciation and support of many participating countries'.

Commentaries in the state press this week have been even more biting in celebration, however. Claiming a victory, Global Times attacked Manila and Hanoi for 'disgracing themselves' in their push to raise concerns about Chinese actions to assert sovereignty with their claimed exclusive economic zones, dismissing them as 'troublemakers'.

'The country [China] used to be overwhelmingly worried about the consequences of insisting on its interests. Now it will not become worse of it,' said an editorial in Global Times, which is published by People's Daily, China's Communist Party's main mouthpiece.

The official China Daily said the lack of a communique would not stop Asean from 'shoring up regional development'. But it warned: 'If it intends to play a bigger role in regional and international affairs, it needs to stop troublemakers from taking its meetings hostage. It is a misjudgment to think China will continue to tolerate such reckless moves and not safeguard its territory.'

While the state press attacks hone in on Vietnam and the Philippines, various accounts of the closed-door talks among foreign ministers suggest strong, if less specific, concerns about the need for a robust message on the South China Sea were also voiced by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and, eventually, Thailand.

But Hor Namhong repeatedly warned against specific references to nations' continental shelves, economic zones or the disputed Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island to Beijing. He repeatedly raised the prospect of a lack of consensus scuttling the communique.

'I need to be frank with you,' he told the ministers, according to an account. 'In case we cannot find a way out, Cambodia has no more recourse to deal with this issue ... then there will be no text at all. We should not try to impose national positions; we should try to reflect the common views in the spirit of compromise.'

Amid Hor Namhong's repeated warnings, emotions clearly started to run high. According to one account, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario even quoted a famous line from German pastor Martin Niemoller on the perils of doing nothing.

Noting how the Nazis, unopposed, first came for the communists, then the trade unionists, then the Jews, Niemoller said: 'Then they came for me, and there is no one left to speak for me.'

As the impasse dragged into Friday, Indonesia's Natalegawa staged an intense, last-ditch attempt to secure a communique, even hauling the Singaporean delegation back from the airport for support.

His efforts reflected the broader desire of Indonesia - Asean's most populous country by far, with more than 240 million people - to strengthen Asean's involvement in pressing regional issues.

In Phnom Penh last week, after at least 18 drafts and compromises from Vietnam and the Philippines, Hor Namhong still didn't budge. The last hopes were dashed when the Cambodian minister picked up his papers and stormed out of the room.

Surveying the damage, former Asean secretary-general Rodolfo Severino said he did not want to apportion blame for an event he described as a 'bad thing'.

When asked about reports that China was determined to destroy any Asean unity over the South China Sea, he noted Beijing's long-standing position of wanting to settle specific territorial disputes in one-to-one talks with individual claimants.

Severino added: 'If China has allowed itself to be perceived that way then it may have been counter-productive. It will emphasise the need for Asean to stick together, not to mention other powers.

'As its government and economy opens up, it is going to be very hard for China to compromise on these kinds of issues and we all have to learn to live with that.'

Severino did say, however, that Asean had faced difficult and tense moments during its 45-year history, including discussions over human rights in the early 1990s and its reaction to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia - then both non-members - in 1978. The spirit of compromise and consensus remained strong, he said.

In that regard, he said that while it was possible that talks about a formal code of conduct could be buffeted by the breakdown, it might also serve to 'concentrate minds on the need to avoid armed conflict. All is not lost ... and there is still plenty of room for cool heads to prevail'.

Another lingering question will be the relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. Ties, particularly with Vietnamese military figures, are believed to have remained deep and strong, even as Hun Sen has intensified ties with China.

Does the recent breakdown over the communique signal a complete breakdown in Hanoi-Phnom Penh ties? Hun Sen, after all, must know that the South China Sea dispute has long been among the hottest issues for the leadership of Vietnam's Communist Party, a cause hard-wired into their internal propaganda script.

Then there is the fact that, despite lingering tensions with the ethnic Khmer majority, more than 1 million Vietnamese are estimated to be living among the 15 million people in Cambodia.

'The Vietnamese must be apoplectic with Hun Sen right now ... that he has put China's relationship before Vietnam's to such an extent,' said Ian Storey, a Singapore-based scholar of Asia's strategic issues.

There are, after all, few more sensitive and strategic relationships in the region.

200b yuan

CNOOC will invest this much, in yuan, to develop oil and gas resources in the South China Sea over the next 20 years