How China and the US see Southeast Asia

After the dust has settled from contentious days of uneven diplomacy in Phnom Penh at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the differences between the United States and China continue to stand in stark contrast.

Even the presence of US President Barack Obama has been unable to budge negotiators to resolve critical regional military and economic security issues, including nasty territorial disputes over the resource-rich South China Sea. While there was some minor progress on trade partnership talks, there were notable failures.

The failures and disputes further define the different approaches China and the US take to asserting influence in Asia. Obama, who won re-election on Nov. 5, arrived in Phnom Penh Monday after sunset, spent the week promoting free-trade agreements and encouraging Asian economies to work more harmoniously together. Four years after the economic meltdowns in New York and London, the West needs Asia to continue fueling the world’s economic engine.

To focus Asean leaders on this, Obama sounded more Confucian and reconciliatory than his Asian counterparts as he urged reconciliatory approaches to the maritime disputes, which find China at odds with a host of its neighbors and with the United States standing behind them, however tenuously.

On the other side of the Sino-US strategic rivalry, China for the past several years has taken a more focused approach to individual nations. Chief among those has been the Asean host Cambodia, a long-time benefactor of Chinese aid.

Last July and for the first time in 45 years, Cambodia orchestrated what diplomats now consider to be a historic breakdown of Asean when the annual security summit failed to produce a routine communiqué as a result of the maritime disputes. Chinese influence over Cambodia overrode Asean’s desire for consensus and the association’s members, who for decades perfected the art of curbing interference by outsiders, found themselves unable to deny deep internal disputes.

As for Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, when the two met publicly this week during the Asean conclave, they smiled shook and hands and nodded at each other. Neither referred to their rivalry in public. There was really no need to. When Obama’s motorcade left the summit, with no South China Sea maritime code of conduct settled, he sped past banners praising Chinese-Cambodian friendship and Cambodian soldiers atop Chinese-made motorcycles holding Chinese machine guns.

Asean Economic Community

With so many eyes focused on concerns over the resource-rich South China Sea, many major issues fell by the wayside during the week, including the launch of the long-awaited Asean Economic Community (AEC), which is designed to merge the economies of all 10 members into a single trade and investment bloc worth a combined GDP of US$2 trillion and more than 600 million people.

Many major tariff barriers have already been dismantled. But so much work remains to eliminate non-tariffs and open services and investment that Asean leaders agreed to shelve a finalized AEC until December 2015.

A Bigger Trade Deal

Acrimony among Asean members did not, however, stop a bigger trade game getting underway during side talks on the summit’s last day on Wednesday. In what could amount to the world’s largest regional trading arrangement, Asean trade negotiators and their Australian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, New Zealand and South Korean counterparts formally launched Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade talks.

If realized, this 16-country trade agreement would create an integrated market spanning a combined market population of more than 3 billion with a combined GDP of almost US$20 trillion, based on 2011 figures. Accounting for about a third of the global economic output, a successful RCEP could dramatically alter the West’s influence, given that the US and Russia are not involved.

The Human Rights Charter

Earlier in the week, ASEAN leaders finally adopted their nonbinding Human Rights Declaration. Years in the making, the document calls for an end to rights violations that have continued to plague the region, including arbitrary arrests and torture. While acknowledging its imperfections, diplomats applauded the declaration as a regional milestone and said it would help along democratic reforms in countries like Myanmar.

The declaration commits Asean to upholding international law and human rights although it does so within a mushy context: The “realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds."

Critics say this loophole helps member states commit abuses without consequence. Rights activists, who once dismissed Asean as a “club of dictators,” harshly criticized the loopholes, with Phil Robertson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, declaring Asean had finally stumbled across the finish line with a flawed declaration that falls short of international standards.”

Though Dodgy, Still Diplomacy

As the summit ended, the swirl of Asean moved onward to Brunei, which holds the revolving chairmanship next year. Despite the apparent diplomatic failures, the Chinese press rushed to declare China the winner. And Phnom Penh reveled in having successfully hosted its first sitting US president and its largest state summit yet.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who lost his left eye fighting the Vietnamese at the Cold War’s height, welcomed Obama to the annual gathering. When the summit was over, Obama looked into Hun Sen’s one good eye and climbed onto Air Force One.

Hun Sen, who has an uneviable reputation as Asia’s last “strongman,” cried during the summit’s closing ceremony and did not take any questions. Forty years ago the Khmer Rouge had emptied Phnom Penh as a result of insane ideological battles. This time around, it was jaw-jaw-jaw, as Winston Churchill once characterized it, over territorial disputes that filled his city up.