Renewed US Interest in Region Puts Cambodia in Tough Spot, Analysts Say

Posted on November 15, 2012


WASHINGTON – The US “pivot to Asia,” which will be punctuated next week with the Cambodian visit of US President Barack Obama, will likely put Cambodia in a tough spot in the region, caught between the renewed focus of the United States and the increased influence of China, analysts say.

Sensitive issues in the region abound, including over the South China Sea; North Korea and nuclear weapons; relations between China and Japan, as well as other neighbors; and more, said Sokunpanha You, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Michigan.

Being caught in the spotlight will mean Cambodia “will probably lose the confidence from other parties,” if meetings fail over anything from the economy to regional security, he said.

As host of Asean this year, Cambodia has already been caught in the middle of disputes from Southeast Asian countries and China over the South China Sea. Cambodia was heavily criticized after a failed Asean  meeting in July in which it was seen to have pushed a pro-Chinese agenda during regional talks.

However, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia has a clear stance the diplomatic maturity to handle meetings next week.

Regarding the South China Sea, he said, Cambodia must only have a stance to prevent extensive violence in the region. The countries embroiled in overlapping claims for the sea with China, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, must continue to work to peacefully solve the problem, he added.

Ou Ritthy, a political science graduate from the University of Pune, in India, said China remains a threat to the region, especially in conflicts over the South China Sea with Asean states and over the East China Sea with Japan.

“China is aggressive over these issues,” he said. “So it impacts US national security in the Asia Pacific. Not only that, but China is also aggressive over South Asia, in India and Pakistan. Because of such Chinese influence, the US carefully has turned its focus to Asia.”

Nevertheless, with the South China Sea issue one of the region’s most important, Cambodia has done some work in bringing parties closer to agreement on a code of conduct, which would govern behavior in the sea and is intended to prevent conflict there, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters Thursday.

“One cannot say Cambodia has ignored a final solution on the South China Sea at all,” he said in Phnom Penh. “Cambodia as the host country has done all its best.”

Meanwhile, the economic might of Southeast Asia continues to grow, even as China’s influence here does. That means more US focus in the future, analysts said.

“The US is trying to have many friends in the region, to prevent the influx of China’s influence to control this region,” said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “If the US does not prevent it, China can have too much influence in the region, and then it can start oppressing countries in the region, including oppressing them on economic issues.”

You Sokunpanha said China has more advantages in Asia than the US, since the people are culturally closer. But that also means that neighboring countries can be “skeptical over China’s real goals,” he said. “So China cannot ignore all these issues.”

Ou Ritthy said Cambodia has made an extreme turn towards China in recent years, which could have negative impacts on the country, especially in terms of its human rights commitments. “Secondly, it affects investment,” he said. “When Cambodia turns too much to China…free countries like [those in] the EU and the US, which love democracy, will not like to invest.”

Obama’s trip to Cambodia next week has the potential to improve a lot of issues in Cambodia, such as social justice, the judiciary, human rights and democracy, he said. He would like to see Cambodia reform in the way that Burma has, but that all depends on the leaders of the country, he added.

Meanwhile, more international criticism continues to come Cambodia’s way, for arbitrary arrests, land grabs and a corrupt court system, Ou Virak said.

In upcoming summits next week, between Asian, Asean and other world leaders, Cambodia is likely to shoulder more, including for the arrest and 20-year jail sentence of Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio, an independent station that broadcasts the Voice of America and other international programming. There will likely be pressure to find a way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since 2009, to return for elections next year, Ou Virak said.

“When the guest opens the door and sees our house is dirty, it affects Cambodia’s reputation,” he said.

Obama is expected to arrive early Monday. US lawmakers and international rights groups want him to raise human rights abuse, land grabs and other issues with Cambodian leaders. However, Phay Siphan said such calls upon Obama are made “for attention only” and won’t affect the summits and bilateral meetings next week.

The global economy, climate change and the Asean Declaration of Human Rights will be on the agenda for the meeting, to be discussed by the world’s top leaders, he said.


ASEAN Hopes to Improve Unity During Summit

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.

Stumbling blocks 

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.

Human rights

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.