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On Eve of Visit, Obama Faces Asean Challenges, New China Leader

President Barack Obama stands with China's Premier Wen Jiabao, center, as they wait to take a family photo at the East Asia Summit Gala dinner in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali, Indonesia, November 18, 2011.
WASHINGTON - Newly re-elected US President Barack Obama will attend a series of top-level Asian meetings next week, with Cambodia hosting an Asean summit, and China in attendance with new leadership. The high-profile meetings will present challenges for the US president, whose administration has become more deeply involved in the region and its troubles.

That includes growing Chinese influence and what many see as sliding human rights and freedoms in Cambodia.

For Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, that means a chance to demonstrate a balanced foreign policy toward both the US and China.

“We’ll see how he plays his cards,” Ernie Bower, who head the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told VOA Khmer. “But I think it’s good for Cambodia to have a balanced foreign policy. This balance doesn’t mean bouncing the United States and China, but it means working with all players and a recognition that Asean is very important.”

Cambodia was roundly criticized for failed Asean meetings in July over the South China Sea, where overlapping claims of several Asean states and China have bedeviled regional leaders for decades. The US has said it has an interest in seeing peace amid these states, because the South China Sea is a major thoroughfare for international shipping of goods.

“We don’t have specific territorial or maritime claims in the South China Sea, but we want to see it resolved,” Bower said. “Americans want to see it resolved according to rule of law, and in a way that no nations uses its economic or political power to bully or force or coerce smaller nations on sovereign issues.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, in Bangkok, told the Voice of America there that Obama has embraced Southeast Asia. The US president’s presence at the East Asia Summit next week will help the US push for peace in the South China Sea, but it will also help the US regain some balance in the region over China’s growing influence there, he said.

“President Obama’s administration has treated Southeast Asia as a region, not just as a system of hub and spokes traditionally in US foreign policy,” he said. “And he’s building on that. At the same time, it’s also designed to counter-balance China.”

Obama, who is expected to land in Cambodia early on Monday, Nov. 19, will also have challenges in meetings with Cambodia, which receives a large amount of aid and investment from China.

A handful of US lawmakers, led by Republican Senator John McCain, have called on Obama to pressure Prime Minister Hun Sen over human rights abuses and land grabs. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has said the same, and wants US pressure to help him return from exile to join general elections next year. Land activists say they plan to hold major protests over these issues while Obama is in the country.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia section of Human Rights Watch, told the Voice of America in Bangkok that Hun Sen and other top Cambodia officials have been using their political power to enrich themselves at the cost of human rights amid the Cambodian population.

“There’s a whole gamut of very, very serious rights problems that are going on in Cambodia,” he said. “And President Obama needs to state very clearly that this is not the type of governance that the United States expects and that if in fact Cambodia wants to have a closer relationship with the United States it’s got to actually rectify its very, very poor human rights record.”