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Summits for sale?

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Once again, Cambodia tried to pull a fast one on the Philippines and other Asean countries involved in territorial disputes with China,” the Inquirer noted in Thursday’s editorial on the just concluded 21st Asean Summit in Phom Penh. X.

President Benigno Aquino bluntly rejected Prime Minister Hun Sen’s conference summary that claimed that Asean members agreed that negotiations on conflicting maritime claims “would be held within an Asean-China framework” i.e. , they would not be internationalized. There was no agreement “on an exclusive Asean framework,” Aquino interrupted, Inquirer reported. “We depend on international law and the United Nations.”

“A multilateral problem does not lend itself to a solution on a bilateral basis,” Aquino added in a press interview at the Summit sidelines. “If you cross national borders then it becomes an international situation. (It could) come through the international tribunal of the laws of the sea. That makes it another new entity.”

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also bucked efforts by Cambodia to shove discussions on the South China sea issue under the rug. Tokyo rebutted Cambodian foreign ministry official Kao Kim Hourn’s claim that Asean countries “will not internationalize the South China Sea.”

“Representatives of other (Asean )countries disputed the Cambodian statement,” Jan’ Perlez of the New York Times wrote. Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore pointed out this inaccuracy to Hun Sen when the draft was circulated, a conference source indicated. They were not corrected in the final draft so these countries wrote officially to insist on the changes.

As far as sovereignty claims are concerned, those have to be resolved among the claimant states themselves, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. “Asean counsels moderation and restraint, and we try to work towards a Code of Conduct as the next step,” he added. “The international community has a ( vital ) interest. The South China Sea issue isn’t going to stop the claimant states from working with one another.”

“Fool me once, shame on you,” the old saw goes. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” Summit gagging was foreshadowed at the July Asean foreign ministers meeting. Vietnam and the Philippines suggested the traditional final communiqué mention South China Sea disputes. Phnom Penh resisted.

For the first time in 45 years, Asean adjourned without a communiqué. Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natelegawa had to mount an emergency mission to patch up holes that Cambodia punched into Asean unity on behalf of China

“China bought the chair, simple as that,” said a diplomat, who declined to be identified publicly according to usual protocol, the New York Times reported then. As host for the Asean “Cambodia refused to play the customary role of seeking agreement among the 10 participating countries, thus undermining the possibility of an accord.

“The diplomat pointed to China ’s state news agency, Xinhua report where the country’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, was quoted as thanking Cambodia’s prime minister for supporting China ’s “core interests.”

Today’s controversy is more than just Hun Sen being a Khmer Rouge running true to form. It is true, he emerged after Pol Pot terror of the 1970s, lost the 1993 election, but muscled his way into power and – surprise – staged a coup, as Banyan in the Economist notes. “Today, most villages where four-fifths of Cambodia ’s 14 million people live, have schools bearing his name.” And one-man rules prevails.

In October, American congressmen wrote to President Obama “to take Hun Sen to task when he visited in Phom Penh. Obama did just that Monday, Reuters reports. In “tense talks,” Obama stressed to Hun Sen the need for Cambodia to move toward free, fair elections, the need for an independent poll commission associated with those elections. He also called for the release of political prisoners and for opposition parties to be able to operate.”

Concerns over human rights were exaggerated, Hun Sen scoffed. “Cambodia had a better record than many countries”. On Cambodia ’s IOU of more than $370 million, he offered to repay 30 percent. This was “a compromise” since the loan “had been used by a pro-American government in the 1970s to repress its own people.”

He waved away a campaign in the European Parliament to remove Cambodia’s “everything but arms” duty-free access to the EU. A particular target is “blood sugar”—Cambodian sugarcane allegedly produced on grabbed land.

“Money can make make demons turn and grind stones,”says a Chinese proverb. At US$2 billion, Chinese investment in Cambodia is twice the combined total invested by fellow Asean countries, a Reuters report estimates. It is 10 times more than the US estimate. Just before the Summit, more than half a billion dollars in Chinese loans, grants and gifts were released into Phnom Penh in just three months.

Paradoxically, Burma is now emerging from being the paraiah of Asean to it’s most promising member. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of Parliament’s oppostion. Prisoners have been released, press freedom restored, ecomomic isolation dropped – and Chinese stooge status scrapped.

Within Asean, however, China has a vote, albeit with a Cambodian accent. In any Asean capital like Jakarta or Bangkok, Beijing has two embassies: an official one and, across the road, a de facto clone in the Cambodian embassy. Can the Asean still craft a code of conduct for troubled seas – which Cambodia already peddled last year?


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