Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Khmer Notes: Hu’s in Town…?

A couple days before the start of the 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, I ventured to the Peace Palace, where the Summit would be taking place. To my surprise, my friends and I were greeted by a banner that had little to do with the ASEAN Summit. The eye-brow raising banner read: “Welcoming the State Visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China, H.E. Mr. Hu Jintao”.

“Interesting,” I figured. And things got more interesting when I took a sunset trip to the Cambodian Royal Palace, and was welcomed by the proud photos of Cambodian Royal Family with the Hus. I would stay in Phnom Penh for 4 more days, and ‘til last day of my visit, the photos of the Cambodian and Chinese “royalties” never went down. They were there when I got back from Siem Reap too. The banner at the Peace Palace did go down, though, maybe because it would’ve been kinda inappropriate for the other ASEAN Leaders to see.

During the weekend prior to the ASEAN Summit, Chinese President had visited Cambodia and carried out talks with King Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Some sources say that the Prime Minister’s office didn’t have much to do with the invitation, and that it was the Royal Palace that extended the welcome to the Chinese President. Some are even saying that the visit was “self-invited”, timed perfectly before the ASEAN Summit as a means to “rattle ASEAN” (or at least, the ASEAN Chair) into not discussing certain sensitive issues like, ow shall we say, the South China Sea.

Indeed, Cambodia has had strong relations with China ever since its independence from the French in 1953. Throughout much of the Cold War, China supported King Norodom Sihanouk during his many political struggles, particularly after the 1970 coup, which gave rise to the US-sponsored government of Prime Minister Lon Nol. Between 1975 and 1978, China was also on-hand to support the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime with weapons and supplies. And following the UN-supervised elections in 1993, China continued to support the Cambodian Royal Family, this time to Prince Norodom Ranaridh and his FUNCINPEC Party.

Cambodia’s current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, (the longest serving Head of Government in Southeast Asia) had never been a favourite of China. His close ties with Vietnam led him to be labeled by the Chinese as a “puppet” of Hanoi. However, since 1997, Hun Sen has been active in seeking support from Beijing, striking a balance between relations with the Chinese and the Vietnamese. The strategy was successful, particularly because of the Chinese Government’s growing ire at FUNCINPEC’s ties with Taiwan.

Between 1997 and 2005, China has provided over US$ 600 million in investments, grants, and aid. Hun Sen has always been appreciative of China’s engagement, stating more than once that China rarely ties economic assistance with improved governance, human rights issues, or even democratic values. Much of this assistance has been aimed at developing high-profile and government buildings and facilities. Someone pointed out to me the Office of the Prime Minister (which lies next door to the Peace Palace) and said: “That was a gift from the Chinese”.

Not only that, China has supported the strengthening of Cambodia’s military (especially those loyal to Hun Sen) through weapons delivery and training. As well, China has emerged as Cambodia’s number one trading partner and investor. In 2011, China’s foreign direct investment in Cambodia was $1.19 billion, almost 10 times that of the United States. Therefore, in addition to having strong political leverage, the Chinese are also keeping up tabs through their economic prowess.

Hence, I don’t think it should come as a surprise that many saw Hu’s visit to Phnom Penh (on the eve of the ASEAN Summit) as a way for the Chinese to influence Cambodia’s handling of its Chairmanship in this regional organization. Last year, during Indonesia’s Chairmanship, it was public knowledge that China continuously lobbied Indonesia to omit sensitive issues from ASEAN’s agenda, including for the ASEAN+ and EAS meetings. Indonesia never paid heed to such calls. Instead, we succeeded in getting China and ASEAN to sit down on the negotiating table and agree on the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC on the South China Sea.

During his bilateral with Hun Sen, the Chinese President asked Cambodia not to push talks on the South China Sea “too fast”. Under the same breath, President Hu pledged to double bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2017 and announced fresh aid to the poor country. The Cambodian leader responded by stating that while other ASEAN countries would likely raise the issue, Cambodia has left the issue off the official agenda for the meeting.

Later on, during interviews with the press following the ASEAN Summit, Hun Sen balked out at claims that there had been disputes between ASEAN and China, stating that the two sides are “strategic partners”. The Prime Minister even added that the region should remember that China last year granted ASEAN over US$ 10 billion in credit for infrastructure development. He was quick, however, to also state clearly that “Hu Jintao did not tell [him] that [he] have to do this or that…”

Indonesia has set the issue of South China Sea as one of its priorities for ASEAN this year. In particular, Indonesia looks to carry on the momentum created by last year’s agreement on the Guidelines of the DOC to ensure implementation of cooperation projects in the South China Sea as well as to develop a code of conduct in the disputed waters.

Will we see this coming to fruition, especially when considering Cambodia’s status as Chair of ASEAN and its apparent close ties with China?

It must be recognized that China may have in its capacity to use influence over Cambodia in driving a wedge among the ASEAN countries in addressing the issue of the South China Sea. The Cambodians would never admit to such a thing, of course. However, when considering that Cambodia has no claims over the South China Sea, then it probably has less interest in pursuing the South China Sea issue when compared to, say, Vietnam, the Philippines, or even Indonesia.

In the end, in further pushing the South China Sea issue, ASEAN must rely on Hun Sen’s assertion that the ASEAN-China dialogue over the South China Sea “is a process that one cannot abandon”. Indeed, the year’s just started, and we still have many more ASEAN meetings to attend and observe. I therefore, would like to be more optimistic about the prospect of Indonesia achieving its target vis-à-vis the South China Sea. But somehow, it’s hard to ignore the feelings of uncertainty and lack of confidence emanating from various corners of the ASEAN region.

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