PHNOM PENH, WASHINGTON DC - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Asean defense ministers in Siem Reap on Friday, opening a series of meetings that will lead to major summits and the visit of the American president next week.
Panetta said he was but one of a delegation that represents new engagement in the region, on defensive, diplomatic, cultural and economic fronts. On Monday US President Barack Obama is expected to arrive for a series of Asian and Asean meetings, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. All are part of a renewed American focus on Asia, where the influence of China, diplomatically and economically, has ballooned in recent years. That will put the US closer to thorny issues in the region, including the South China Sea and questions about human rights and democracy.
“The message that I have conveyed on this visit and my other visit is that the United States’ rebalance to the Asia Pacific region is real,” Panetta said, following meetings at the Asean defense ministers retreat and with Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh. “It is sustainable, and it will be ongoing for a long period of time into the future.”
The US military has slowly begun its own reengagement of Cambodia, following years of absence in the wake of the 1997 coup, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seized power. This has included in large part a focus on regional counterterrorism.
Government critics, including many international rights groups, have said that Cambodia has not upheld basic standards for human rights in that time. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing the ruling party of rewarding officials who take on unsavory tasks for the good of the party, including extrajudicial killings.
At the same time, China has emerged to fill the gaps in investment and development, with little of the conditions that often go with Western aid.
“I also want to underscore…the support of the United States for the protection of human rights, of civilian oversight of the military, of respect for rule of law and for the rights of full and fair participation in the political process here in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia,” Panetta said.
Tea Banh, who chaired the Siem Reap meeting and met with Panetta individually, welcomed the US commitment. “It is very clear, as we have been saying all along, that we have to cooperate with all parties, especially the more superpowers increase their engagement in the region, the more we have to cooperate to ensure stability for the region.”
Panetta’s talks with defense ministers was just a part of a series of meetings that began Friday and will culminate in the East Asian and Asean summits in Phnom Penh next week. Regional security will be a major issue, including the South China Sea. But so too will human rights and democracy. Obama’s visit, the first by a sitting US president to Cambodia, will likely include talks on security, economic cooperation and human rights. Chinese leaders, too, will attend talks.
That has made next week’s meetings a central focus for governments and civic groups alike.
In the capital on Friday, about 1,000 demonstrators from Cambodia and other Asean countries were stopped from delivering a petition to the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling on Asean leaders to improve their rights records. Asean is expected to approve a Declaration of Human Rights in its meetings next week that rights groups say falls short of international standards and should be reviewed. And
Security forces blocked the demonstrators, though no violent clashes were reported. Cambodian authorities have had their hands full in recent months, with ongoing, often violent, demonstrations by groups ousted from their homes in development projects. The most active, from the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities, say they plan to lead demonstrations in front of the US Embassy during Obama’s visit, despite warnings not to.
Ghi Laga, a demonstrator from Malaysia, told VOA Khmer that Cambodia is not the only country that experiences human rights violations.
“I think it is our right to assemble, to express, and we should exercise it,” she said. “We should not be stopped by the government, or anyone for that matter.”
Elsewhere in the capital, senior Asean ministers began preparations for the summits next week.
On the agenda already is the South China Sea, toward which Asean states hope to see a code of conduct, said Seur Ratchavy, secretary of state for the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Now we are consulting with China how to start, how to move,” she said. “What is the process? You know, we’ve started to talk about that, consult with each other informally already.”
An Asean meeting in July met with failure, after Cambodia was accused of using its chairmanship to push China’s agenda over the sea. Four Asean states, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have overlapping claims to the sea with China. Officials said Friday they hope next week’s meetings are more fruitful.
“I think all of us are aware that nobody benefit from what happened, so the most important thing is for Asean to maintain its unity, cohesiveness, solidarity,” said Sihasak Puangketkaew, permanent secretary for the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry. “Because if we want to be a central player in the regional architecture, Asean unity and our ability to forge a unified position is very important.”
Igusti Agug Wesaka Puja, director of Indonesia’s Asean department, at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters that discussions are ongoing. “We cannot say this is the end of the road yet,” he said. “We are still discussing at the informal level. I hope at the end we will run into reach consensus among ourselves.”
Some analysts say the South China Sea issue is large enough that it should be separated from other agenda items at next week’s summit.
There are some topics that all Asean states can agree on, which would include freedom of shipments through the sea, as well as peace and stability there, You Sokunpanha, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Michigan, told “Hello VOA” Thursday. But the discussion on overlapping claims and sovereignty is more complicated, he said. Greater US involvement in the region could help resolve the issue, he said.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters this week that Cambodia has done much to further discussions on the issue. “One cannot say that Cambodia has ignored a final solution on the South China Sea at all,” he said.
Despite the thorny issues facing Obama and his delegation, his visit could mean much for the region, many analysts agree.
Increased US attention on the region could mobilize Asian nations to join forces in tackling global issues, Linda Yarr, director of the Asian international studies program George Washington University, told VOA Khmer. “It is tremendously important for the president to demonstrate to the people of Asia that the US is, has been and will always be interested and a part of Asia,” she said. “It has been a long part of our history to be concerned with what happens in Asia.”