PHNOM PENH — World leaders congregate this week in Cambodia for high-level meetings of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations. Analysts say ASEAN members will try to present a more united front after divisive meetings in July ended in embarrassment. But hot-button issues, including a key maritime dispute and human rights concerns, will continue to test ASEAN’s resolve.
July’s ministerial summit in Phnom Penh could hardly have gone worse for officials hoping for a show of unity among the diverse 10-member bloc. The meetings stumbled over the contentious issue of competing claims to the South China Sea. Cambodia, this year’s chair, was accused of siding with its powerful benefactor, China.
This leaders’ summit, then, may be an opportunity for Cambodia to find some redemption in the eyes of its critics, before it gives up the chair for the year.
Carlyle Thayer, an analyst on ASEAN affairs with the University of New South Wales, says ASEAN members will aim to avoid a repeat of July’s stalemate.
“So the worst thing Cambodia can do is try to exert a strong influence against where the currents are going," Thayer says. "This is their last moment of glory-to go out being looked at well. The point is there's nothing further they can really do for China.”
The Philippines, one of four ASEAN members with competing claims to the South China Sea, along with China and Taiwan, will almost certainly raise the issue again. But Thayer says it’s just as certain that China and ASEAN will be unable to strike a deal in the coming days on a long-awaited Code of Conduct to sort out the claims.
“In the South China Sea, it's what spin will be put on where they're at, where ASEAN has reached agreement and saying bland things, congratulatory things about China and making progress. But there will be no Code of Conduct approved,” Thayer explains.
But it is far from the only issue that will provoke debate. Ongoing tensions in Burma’s Rakhine state continue to be a stumbling block on the country’s much-publicized road to reforms.
Some observers say this could also be an opportunity for ASEAN to show it can resolve conflicts, which has long been a question mark for a group with a reputation for being reluctant to criticize its own members.
“I think this could be an issue that will rescue ASEAN, if Myanmar [Burma] would like to play along … it could be good for ASEAN, because this will be the issue about the protection of human rights, and ASEAN already has the human rights commission, which has been criticized of doing nothing in the last few years," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst at Kyoto University. "This could be the chance for the human rights commission to come, basically not to point fingers at anyone, but to just do what ASEAN does best: coming to educate, to raise awareness and to urge the government to do something.”
Still, Burma has resisted recent efforts to treat the problem as anything more than an internal issue.
The coming meetings will more likely see the bloc move ahead with cementing a declaration on human rights. Critics say previous drafts of the document have been insufficient.
But anticipation for the leaders’ summit will be focused on the big names expected to attend. That will include U.S. President Barack Obama, whose scheduled visit would mark the first appearance of a sitting American head of state in Cambodia.
Obama’s presence will see a continued focus on U.S. objectives in the region as part of a so-called “pivot” to Asia and China’s reaction to renewed American interests in its backyard.
Ernie Bower, with Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Obama, well aware of suspicions in China, will seek to downplay the narrative of a U.S. “containment” strategy for China.
“The whole idea of a China area of influence and a U.S. area of influence and forcing countries to choose is exactly not what the United States wants to be about,” Bower says.
Most countries in attendance will be looking to build on trade ties with ASEAN members. But the United States could be left out when the bloc officially launches negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which could eventually lead to a free trade area including all of ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
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