A Lot To Gain for Cambodia as Asean Chair

When the rotating one-year chairmanship of Asean officially changed hands in Bali last November, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a show of taking over the ceremonial gavel from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. And when the foreign ministers on the 10-member body convene in Siem Reap City today for a three-day retreat, Cambodia will take the lead in setting their agenda for the coming year.

“I think there [is] a lot to gain,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead political and strategic affairs researcher for the Asean Studies Center at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

He said a good turn in Asean’s driver’s seat could go some way toward wooing still-skeptical investors. Asean, after all, is at heart an economic union aiming for full integration by 2015.

“In terms of achieving national interests, it is a good opportunity to showcase economic development of the country. Chairmanship could bring more investment. It can…show the political stability under P.M. Hun Sen,” he said. “In terms of Asean, Cambodia can use its chairmanship to promote issues that could benefit itself, such as the reduction of [the] gap in economic development among members.”

“Cambodia surely hopes that the chairmanship would, for one, help to burnish its international image, which may in turn produce political and economic benefits,” agreed Shiwei Ye, Asean representative for the Bangkok-based International Federation for Human Rights.

As for the political benefits, he said they might just include a coveted seat on the UN Security Council. Cambodia has been courting support for one of the non-permanent seats on the Council up for grabs in 2013. Using Asean to showcase the progress it has made mending relations with Thailand over a long-running-and occasionally deadly–border dispute could lend those efforts a well-timed boost.

“[Cambodia] may use the chairmanship as an opportunity to mend the strained relations with Thailand after the recent border row, which may help its bid for a rotating seat on the UN Security Council,” Mr. Ye said.

But for all the prestige the high-profile seat could bring, Mr. Pavin said Cambodia’s focus would stay closer to home.

“Ultimately Cambodia has to live with Asean members, and the position at the UN is only to serve the prestige of a nation rather than anything more substantial,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong acknowledged as much in November when he said Cambodia would use its chairmanship to help China in its goal to make 2012 the year of “friendship and good cooperation” with Asean. He said China was offering member states $10 billion worth of new loans in the effort.

“Cambodia has a special relationship with China, so I am not surprised to hear this,” Mr. Pavin said.

China’s investments in Cambodia now outstrip those of any other country and only look set to grow.

But Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said a “pragmatic” Mr. Hun Sen could still upend such expectations during Cambodia’s tenure at the head of Asean.

“Asean’s partners including the United States should not assume that a Cambodian chairmanship of Asean in 2012 means that China’s interests will dominate as agendas are set,” he said in a Center newsletter last year.

“Evidence suggests that Hun Sen may not want to allow himself to be dominated by China,” he added. “Cambodia’s economy has clearly benefited enormously from Chinese trade and soft loans, but to sustain that growth and attract new investment that includes technology transfer, training, education and linkages to world markets, Cambodia needs to get out from behind paternalistic ties to China. Its leaders are well aware of this and a more balanced foreign policy is a real possibility as a result.”

He took Cambodia’s Security Council bid, regular deployment of international peacekeepers and use of investment advisers with ties to the West as signs that the government was looking to branch out.

For countries that hoped to take advantage, he said, “Now is the time to focus.”

At the end of the latest meeting of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in Siem Reap yesterday, Cambodian Human Rights Committee President Om Yentieng said Cambodia also hoped to finish drafting the group’s first human rights declaration under its watch.

But rights groups have rebuked Asean for refusing the share a draft of the deal and expressed concern that the finished product may not amount to much, especially if it foregoes a meaningful mechanism to punish members who break the rules.

“If the reclusiveness of the drafting process and of how [the Commission has conducted] its work in the last two years are an indication, I am afraid the declaration will not be meaningful to the people whose rights it is supposed to uphold,” said Mr. Ye of the International Federation for Human Rights.

At yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Yentieng said Asean would open up the drafting process at a pair of workshops but failed to say when.

This week’s meeting of Asean foreign ministers will come to a close on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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