The role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is under threat from security challenges posed by superpower competition, an analyst has said.
Chheang Vannarith, co-founder and chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, told the live Hello VOA radio program on Thursday that conflicts between the United States, China and Russia over the South China Sea and access to the resources in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region were shaking the very foundations of the strategic alliance.
“So, we see the momentum of the power competition between U.S. and China will make the Asean region very shaky as some countries turn to the U.S. and others turn to China,” he said.
Chheang said countries such as Laos may be influenced by China, as it will host the Asean summit this year.
“Laos will be the Chair of Asean this year and it will face pressures from others including China’s pressure not to discuss the South China Sea so much,” he said.
He added that the U.S. had shifted its focus toward Vietnam, which it signed a wide-ranging co-operation accord with last month, rather than its traditional regional ally, Thailand.
“The United States picks Vietnam and Cambodia is facing risks … because the Cambodian government is turning to China and Vietnam is picking the United States. So, the problems and political tensions in Cambodia can tie in with the changes of geo-politics in the region,” Vannarith added.
He went on to say that if the Asean bloc is divided, there will be few winners.
“We see Asean still values Asean as the priority in controlling the disputes as well as managing the political stability and security in the region. But as we know each county has its individual interest, so if the national interest and the regional interest do no match, it would be divergent. But we see Asean still ties up as a group now.”
Chheang also said Russia is paying more attention to Asia as tensions with the European Union and U.S. persist.
“So, Russia is turning to Asia to expand its influence to develop its economy and strategic territories in the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
Cambodia’s dependence on China has raised concerns among observers, with one analyst telling VOA Khmer last month that overreliance on Chinese loans could lead the country to a diplomatic and economic “deadlock”.
Russia recently signed a cooperation agreement with Asean, known as the Sochi Declaration, and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly called Cambodia “an old friend, a great partner, and a most trusted friend.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asean signatory nations, and is reportedly considering Vietnamese approaches to relax a weapons embargo in place for decades.
Even Japan is getting in on the action, in May announcing a $6.8 billion investment program to counter China’s influence.
“China is feeling some push back, particularly led by Japan that's trying to stiffen regional countries. But without decisive American action, Japan is just not strong enough to continue to do it,” Carl Thayer, a defense analyst at Australia's University of New South Wales, told VOA at the time. “Bottom line is that time seems to be on China's side.”