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Asean Woes Signal Cambodian Shift Toward China, Analysts Say


China has given billions of dollars in aid to Cambodia in recent years, making it the top donor.

China has given billions of dollars in aid to Cambodia in recent years, making it the top donor.

It was the first time in 45 years the bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations failed to issue a joint statement at the end of a meeting.

WASHINGTON DC - Asean’s failure to sign a joint communique following meetings last week was due to Cambodia’s close siding with China, shunning its traditional ally, Vietnam, analysts say.

It was the first time in 45 years the bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations failed to issue a joint statement at the end of a meeting, highlighting growing pressure within the grouping.

Phat Kosal, a researcher of Asian affairs at the University of Southern California, said Cambodia needs China’s aid to help it climb from poverty.

There will be “resentment” from Vietnam, he said, “but it does not break [the relationship] in the future, because Vietnam knows that Cambodia cannot do anything, as it is under the strong pressure of China, and because Cambodia needs assistance to solve its economic problems.”

China has given billions of dollars in aid to Cambodia in recent years, making it the top donor. Asean leaders failed to agree on a code of conduct that would help reduce tension in the South China Sea, where four Asean states, including Vietnam, have overlapping claims with China. At the center of the deadlocks was Cambodia, the current head of Asean, signaling strong political influence by China to keep Asean from uniting on the issue.

Joel Brinkley, author of “Cambodia’s Curse,” a book on modern Cambodia, says Prime Minister Hun Sen has chosen to be allied “with a country that provides a lot of money rather than the country that put him into power.”

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Hun Sen is not putting the country’s interests first.

“Hun Sen is showing that he is going to make alliances with the people he thinks serve his interests the best,” Adams said. That plays into China’s desires to keep Asean disjointed, he said, but it doesn’t mean Hun Sen won’t back another helpful party in the future.

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the failure on the communique, which meant that South China Sea discussions will not be part of its official record, and failure to help calm the South China Sea issue through a code of conduct likely do not sit well with Vietnam or the other Asean claimants to the sea: Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

“Claimant parties that are Asean members are disappointed with Cambodia as the Asean chair,” he said.

It remains to be seen how that disappointment will play out when Cambodia hosts a major Asean summit in November.

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