30th July 2012
The government has followed last week’s attack on The Phnom Penh Post commentator Roger Mitton with a uncannily similar defence of its policies and actions at the recent ASEAN Summit against an op-ed piece by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies in The Bangkok Post over the weekend apparently penned by Madam You Ay, Cambodia’s Ambassador to Thailand.
In a letter of rebuttal, she took exception to four of Dr Thitinan’s points.
In a tone of high dudgeon, Madam You first highlighted the same mistake that Mitton made in his commentary (see here), that it was that grim dash of Socialist Realism, the so-called “Friendship Building”, to which the Chinese apparently contributed $US50 million, not the Prime Minister’s modest office next door (the “Peace Palace”) where the ASEAN ministers met. The PM himself apparently rejected the Friendship Building as lacking in sufficient gravitas.
Chinese-built but not the “Peace Palace”
All Bought and Paid For: “Peace Palace”
Next, she characterised as “purely insulting” the notion that China had become Cambodia’s patron simply by lavishing $US10 billion in aid and investment on the Kingdom, asking if the good doctor considered China as the patron of other ASEAN states that “have received many more billions of dollars of aid and investment than Cambodia from China?”
Well, frankly, the answer is probably yes. Anyone thinking the Chinese are throwing money at them out of brotherly love has got to be extraordinarily naïve. The trick is to take the money and then try to avoid giving anything too compromising back. Whether Cambodia managed this is moot.
Thirdly, she asked if the allegation that Cambodia ”shared the draft version of the joint statement with the Chinese, who then vetoed it” was part of a deliberate smear campaign against her country with the intention to “defame Cambodia’s credibility.”
We will probably never know for sure but notes on the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ private meeting apparently leaked to Carlyle Thayer by The Philippine’s FM Albert del Rosario might suggest that many in the meeting, not just the South China Sea’s littoral states, thought so.
Finally, she said that it was her country was fully committed as anyone to achieving the ASEAN (economic) Community by 2015, and that the failure to produce a communiqué at the end of the meeting “only a temporary hiccup” remedied by the eventual issuance of the Six-Point Principles – the very principles that Cambodia had always supported – but which had been sabotaged by Vietnam and The Philippines that “had their own hidden plan to sabotage the AMM and made the JC a hostage of their bilateral disputes.”
Actually, Dr Thitanan had also pointed the finger at The Philippines as bearing some of the responsibility for the original outcome of the Summit, emboldened, he suggests, by the “US rebalancing.”
“As a tentative understanding, ASEAN and China a decade ago came up with a Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)”, he states. “Under the Cambodian chairmanship, the DOC is supposed to be elevated, finalised and codified into a COC. ASEAN’s debacle in Phnom Penh means the COC remains elusive.”
Moreover, the credit for the final compromise must surely go to Indonesia’s peripatetic Foreign Minister, Marty Natelagawa, who worked tirelessly to get all the ducks lined up in a row.
What does seem to have happened subsequently, however, is that following its victory, China has decided belatedly to support the idea of the COC it was originally party to but later backed away from in favour of “bilateral” negotiations. If so, this is a significant development.
Nevertheless, the first thing everybody needs to acknowledge when discussing any regional issue is that the government here in Phnom Penh is never, ever – ever – motivated by self-interest. Pure as freshly thrashed rice, it is, with a keen sense of its responsibilities to serve as an honest broker as rotating chair of ASEAN for 2012.
Actually, Penh Pal does not presume to judge the Cambodian government as, frankly, there are plenty of others – especially, it seems coming from ex-colonial powers – that feel they need to continue their “civilising mission” by harping on about the perceived limitations of the current regime (which of course, makes them easy targets).
Sadly, all this seems to do is get the government’s back up and make it even more obstinate.
However, there are important and complex issues that need to be understood, and a discussion of them – especially a contested one – is a good way to help elucidate them.
The key to this debate is the conflict between individual national interests and wider communal interests. The whole point of what ASEAN as a regional forum is for is to help address these and, hopefully, resolve them.
The recent ASEAN Summit has been a useful barometer for gauging these differences and determining just how useful ASEAN can be at defusing regional conflicts of interest that will inevitably arise. It is part of the groupings evolution from anti-communist alliance into a place where these fraught disputes can be discussed and solutions to them sought.
While Cambodia has again demonstrated its willingness to be a regional iconoclast, few commentators will dispute that China has been the real winner, able to show that it is quite capable of protecting its interests in a pact it is not even part of.
At the same time, perceptions of Chinese bullying, no doubt driven by powerful and potentially dangerous nationalist sentiments at home at a particularly delicate time politically, have clearly proved counter-productive.
Has it overplayed its hand? More importantly, from its position of strength, will it now become more conciliatory to avoid scaring some of ASEAN’s larger members further into the American camp and risk splitting the group down the middle with one side defiantly hostile to its role in the region?