Analysts say Cambodia handled its first Asean summit for the year with success, but it will face leadership challenges over the South China Sea, as Asean countries and China continue talks.
Officials from Vietnam and the Philippines, both Asean countries, raised the issue at meetings ahead of the final summit earlier this week, with Asean leaders ultimately deciding they would draft a so-called code of conduct, or set of rules, for the sea.
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told VOA Khmer Thursday that even the code of conduct is complicated because of differing relationships between Southeast Asian countries and China.
“If there’s no China influence, Asean countries could reach a compromise on [the code of conduct] more easily,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters after the last day of the summit that the 10 Asean countries—Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—had “reached common points regarding the issue,” but he said Asean countries would need to start working with China.
Albert del Rosario, foreign secretary for the Philippines, said a code of conduct should be fully agreed on “before China is invited” for talks.
Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said China seems ready to engage in a dialogue over the code of conduct. “But I think the usual practice is to have an Asean position” first, he said.
A code of conduct would help China and Asean claimants to the sea reduce tensions, but Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Asean members should avoid internal divisions over the issue.
“Suppose countries that have a row in the South China Sea push [China] harder, then they can cause pressure on the relationships of others that are not involved in the South China Sea,” he said. “They should see what is a proper, acceptable pace for all.”
Ou Virak said smaller claimant countries will want a unified Asean to discuss the issue, rather than having each individual country in bilateral discussions with a powerful China.