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As Summit Opens, Asean Faces Test of Leadership

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) waves a gavel after taking over the ASEAN chairmanship from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during the handover ceremony at the closing session of ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Nusa Dua, Bali Novemb

Indonesia’s Asean chairmanship in 2011 was widely praised as a success that raised the profile of the region internationally. With Cambodia preparing to open a major Asean summit on Friday, questions remain as to how the country will lead.

Under Indonesia’s leadership, more non-Asean countries participated in the group’s meetings, its human rights agenda gained ground and issues surrounding the South China Sea gained more attention.

As this year’s head of Asean, Cambodia issued its own agenda this week for the 20th Asean summit, a five-day meeting that begins Friday. On the side, ministers will meet on a number of measures, including human rights and a nuclear-free Asean.

Taken together, the meetings will be an indication of Cambodia’s Asean priorities.

Dino Patti Djalal, Indonesia’s ambassador to the US, told VOA Khmer recently that each country must determine its own agenda for the year it is Asean chief. Indonesia would like to see more work done on Asean’s plans beyond 2015, when it is scheduled for better economic
integration, he says.

The agenda does not directly address the South China Sea, a highly contested body of water among some Asean members, Taiwan and China.

“I know none of us wants to see another 10 years to happen before this Code of Conduct is being finalized,” Djalal said of South China Sea talks. “We don’t have 10 years. And I know that our Cambodian friends are working hard to make sure that that discussion maintains its momentum.”

Observers say these need not be on the agenda for them to be pursued, however.

Pek Koon Heng, director of the Asean Studies Center at American University, in Washington, told VOA Khmer that in Asean much is accomplished when member countries lead by example, rather than directly through criticism or lecturing.

“It’s like flying geese,” she said. “The lead goose goes ahead and the others follow. So it’s a matter of how quickly or how slowly the others are flying. And this is very much an Asean process.”

That means human rights, the South China Sea and other issues can be slowly addressed. But with Cambodia now at the head of Asean, to be followed by Brunei and Burma, it remains to be seen whether the leadership of countries like Indonesia will be followed.

“I think that the weaker will always be helped by the stronger in Asean,” Heng said. “But it will be exciting to see whether Cambodia will be able to build on that.”