Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Cambodia, the Elephant and the Deep Blue Sea - 12 April 2012

It’s a big deal when the world’s second most powerful political figure calls by and for Cambodia,a small country, it’s no different especially now, in this, Asia’s century. The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, arrived in Phnom Penh on a state visit, a trip that coincided with Cambodia hosting the annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) 2012 summit.

Special preparations had been made in Phnom Penh for his visit and the holding of the ASEAN summit. National flags were flying along Norodom Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, and along the riverside. Police be they federal green-shirted gendarmerie with their heavy weaponry or brown-shirted police with small arms, close off access to the boulevard with such regularity as to make commuting even more of troublesome, a process than reduces the locals to an even more powerless state, far removed form access to the powers that be.

Phnom Penh was awash with 10,000 security personnel packing AK-47s and Glocks. Cambodian military vehicles – blackened Hummers and SUVs – uniformed soldiers in their camouflage, motorcycle outriders aplenty, demining teams and police of many types with plain clothes bodyguards surrounding the summit’s facilities. In Cambodia this can take a relaxed air with traffic police sitting under the Frangipani trees.

To reduce traffic congestion trucks were banned from the city for the duration of the summit, though trucks in the capital are relatively few in number and do little to slow traffic. During this time some schools and universities were also closed though some principal’s questioned why this was necessary.alt

The Chinese leader’s visit – the first such encounter on Cambodian soil in 12 years – was deemed coincidental, though some observers said it felt deliberate. Some analysts were worried about the ramifications of Cambodia’s willingness to cede to China’s wishes as chair of ASEAN. Televised highlights of one meeting showed President Hu seated opposite the Cambodian delegation who were all Khmer smiles, while the Chinese leader’s expression was far more enigmatic, giving nothing away.

In Phnom Penh, Hu Jintao promised to double bilateral trade in five years, and to provide grants and loans to Cambodia totalling more than US$70 million. At the meeting Cambodia agreed with China’s request to limit discussion of territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China is important to Cambodia and the two nations have shared a history in recent times. Chinese aid money paid for much infrastructure in Cambodia, including the recently commissioned building of another bridge across the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh and the ostentatious Council of Administrative Reform building in the capital, home to the highest ministerial offices. China’s Union Development Group has been granted 36,000 hectares of land in Koh Kong province for a $3.8 billion tourism project, though this is the result of protest from villagers displaced by the project, who were prevented from petitioning President Hu by police.

An independent Cambodia-based analyst, Lao Mong Hay, said the conference is for “China to influence and pressure Cambodia in order to protect its own geopolitical interests”, adding that some ASEAN countries “may have lost confidence in Cambodia as a neutral chairman, especially when many countries would want to push forward negotiations on the South China Sea.” He acknowledged that the years of the Khmer Rouge was the “climax of Cambodia’s subservience to China” and that Cambodia was again in a dangerous situation having placed itself once more at the “geopolitical nexus of the US, China and Vietnam” warning that Cambodia is becoming “increasingly subservient to China’s interests in the region.” But this could be said of a few ASEAN countries.alt

China is the elephant in ASEAN’s room, dominating much of the group’s awareness for over two decades and couldn’t be ignored. A Sino-ASEAN relationship has become both highly necessary and unavoidable. A joint free-trade agreement was signed in 2002. Since then China’s relationship with ASEAN as a whole and with its member states individually has mushroomed. Sino-ASEAN trade reached a staggering US$362 billion in 2011; almost 900 percent what is was a decade ago.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been ongoing for decades. Lately these have become more volatile, with the threat of military confrontation, particularly since the economic and military rise of China as the regional superpower. Recent disputes have involved increasing intimidation with actions including rammings, the cutting of cables and live firing exercises.

For its part, China attempts to settle disputes with ASEAN states bilaterally, making it difficult for a consensus to be reached. ASEAN states’ relations with China vary; those from the south are more indifferent than those from the north; Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The issue of the South China Sea is increasingly significant having taken on a more global dimension in recent years drawing in India, the US, Japan and Korea, as between one-third and one-half of world trade uses the sea lanes.

China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea. But China’s claim is by far the largest, an “historic” line that encompasses almost the entire sea, the so-called “cow’s tongue” as the line is called.

More broadly, the South China Sea dispute is significant as the Indian Ocean is the world’s energy highway, taking crude oil and natural gas from the Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian plateau to the mushrooming markets of eastern Asia.  The dispute has recently seen the entrance of India onto the scene, primed with an oil exploration agreement granted by Vietnam, which has ratcheted up the pressure.

According to analyst, Robert Kaplan, 90 percent of all commercial goods that travel from one continent to another do so by container ship, and half those goods in terms of global tonnage – and one-third of monetary value – do so across the South China Sea, which connects the Indian Ocean with the western Pacific. Moreover, the supposedly energy-rich South China Sea is the economic hub of world commerce where sea routs coalesce.

For its part, ASEAN has been a curious organisation for much of its existence.  It was founded in 1967 during the Cold War with the main objective of containing the spread of communism in the region and began with 5 founder member states which increased to 10 in the 1990s.

For most of its 41 years the association operated on the basis of general statements issued only at summit meetings. It was only in 2008 that an ASEAN charter was adopted, providing the association with a legal framework, a turning point in its history making it a rule-based organisation.

According to some experts, this is because Asia isn’t used to rule-based relationships or legal contracts, and instead functions with social contracts, a kind of “cultural contract” based on personal relationships among elite groups, among the leaders.

“ASEAN people share common anthropological structures called seniority relations,” French law professor, Emmanuel Dialma, told the Cambodia Daily. In democratic countries in which laws are meant to apply to everyone, those structures built around hierarchy may clash with democratic principles but nevertheless continue to play an important role in society.

Because of its own illiberal tendencies and weak internal mechanisms, ASEAN has never been able to force its members into complying with demands for better governance. This is highlighted by the US-based Freedom House organisation in its global scorecard for 2011 which gave Burma, Laos and Vietnam all a seven, the worst score possible on their index of rankings. Cambodia and Brunei get a six, while Singapore and Thailand got a four. That means that seven out of the 10 ASEAN members ranked on the bottom half of the scale, and fare little better on Freedom House’s ranking of civil liberties.

Collectively, ASEAN sits astride great geo-cultural fault lines at the intersection of the Pacific and the Indian oceans; of Islam and Buddhism; and violently between the two political ideologies which dominated the world for 50 years – communism and the West.

Because of this there is the concept of an East Asia community rising, but not like the European model. Unlike the European Union, whose institutions can issue laws and guidelines binding all country members, ASEAN has no such organisation. This means that businesses used to the EU system find it difficult to deal with ASEAN since no one has authority to sign agreements on behalf of country members.

Nevertheless, there is evidence of a collective regional identity. For example, many young urban Cambodians are very IT equipped, very linked into international pop culture from increasingly Korea and China, and of course their own national culture.

But what the analysts forget is that most Cambodians, 85 percent, scratch a living anyway they can far away from ASEAN, its members, and the high level issues they ponder. For most Cambodians, they endure the daily cycle of struggle, of poverty, coupled with the cost of corruption, a leech on their lives. For the powers that be in ASEAN, this is not the cost of doing business, but a benefit; it’s the rest who pay.

For ASEAN its 2015 goal of economic integration will not come at the cost of national sovereignty; there will be no European Parliament and no European Commission.

Of late, ASEAN is becoming more powerful and more calculating. It looks to the US to play off China, it talks to India to build up leverage. Suddenly, the relationship isn’t wholly unbalanced. So while ASEAN needs China, it turns out China now needs ASEAN too.

Cheng-Chwee Kuik, a China-ASEAN expert at the National University of Malaysia, says “China needs ASEAN to reconfirm its legitimacy as regional power, to erase its old image of a threat, to trade with ASEAN and revive its sphere of influence in this part of the world, to use ASEAN to balance the influence of Japan, India and US in Southeast Asia”

In Asia’s century, ASEAN has a difficult choice to make: does it turn east to gain leverage alongside the rise of China, or shift westward and align itself with the US? Or does the EU offer a third way to ASEAN as a way of avoiding being subsumed in the Chinese wave?

In the EU, ASEAN has a partner that is outside of the power struggle playing out between the US and China. Europe is putting a greater focus on ASEAN and is now the region’s second largest trading partner after China – an amount equal to around 11 percent of ASEAN’s total trade. The EU is also the largest investor in Southeast Asia.

In the new “Great Game” of strategic positioning, options for ASEAN are being carefully weighed in the knowledge that going too far in either direction could upset a finely crafted balance.


#1 cambodia guide 2012-07-23 09:07
Council of Administrative Reform building is truly impressive.

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