Cambodia's chance to quiet doubts about its role in Asean

Gregory Poling and Alexandra Sander consider how it could guide upcoming summit to success

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 1:59am

Cambodia will fulfil its last major obligation as this year's Asean chair this month when it hosts the annual Asean Summit and the seventh East Asia Summit. The East Asia Summit in particular will provide an opportunity for Cambodia to restore some of its credibility after it blocked the inclusion of any mention of the South China Sea disputes in the joint communiqué of the Asean ministerial meeting in July.

That failure cast significant doubt on the ability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to tackle tough issues. It also caused troubling allegations that Cambodia had placed its close relationship with China above the interests of fellow Asean members.

If the upcoming summit goes better, some of the Asean sceptics will be quieted. The key will be supporting Cambodia as an effective chair.

The East Asian Summit agenda will include a number of tough topics, foremost maritime security and the ongoing disputes in the South and East China Seas. Some members would rather avoid them. But Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan are almost certain to raise them, and others will not keep quiet once the issues are tabled.

Strong Cambodian leadership and a flexible response to any lack of consensus on key issues will alleviate doubts about Asean unity and efficacy. That will allow Asean to cement its place at the centre of regional political and economic structures.

The most important role of the chair is the prerogative to set the summit agenda. Cambodia cannot prevent the Philippines or Vietnam from raising the South China Sea issue, for instance, but it can place that discussion where it will be most effective. What it cannot attempt is a repeat of its behaviour at the ministerial meeting; the role of the chair must be to guide discussions, not block them.

Cambodia must communicate to China that it cannot manipulate the Asean chair into overrepresenting Chinese interests. This will be a tall order. Cambodia will have to allow its neighbours to discuss contentious issues, regardless of Chinese objections, in an honest and transparent manner. But it will also have to guide the discussion to avoid provoking China unnecessarily.

Ensuring that all parties have a say in crafting the joint communiqué following the meetings - and there must be one - will also be important.

A successful Cambodian leadership could have a big impact on the effectiveness of Asean for years to come. Just as important, it would set the stage for Brunei, Myanmar and Laos to oversee their own successful years as chair.

Gregory Poling is a research associate, and Alexandra Sander is a researcher, with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS. Copyright: Pacific News Service