Phnom Penh (Cambodia): A rocket launch planned by North Korea and long-broiling disputes over the South China Sea are expected to dominate Southeast Asia’s annual diplomatic summit this week, while elections in long-repressed Myanmar have helped turn a perennial troublemaker into a bright spot.
Cambodia is hosting the two-day summit of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations starting Tuesday. The stated focus is on turning the 10 disparate nations — and their combined population of 600 million — into a European Union-like community by 2015, but many other issues will be discussed on the sidelines.
North Korea is not a member of the group, but ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said he expected some leaders to voice alarm over Pyongyang’s plan to fire a long-range rocket this month.
“I think some concern will be expressed because instability anywhere in Asia and anywhere in the world will have negative implications on all of us,” he said.
Territorial conflicts in the resource-rich South China Sea will almost certainly be raised, Surin said.
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all make various claims on the sea, which China claims in its entirety. The Philippines and Vietnam in particular have been at odds with Beijing over the region in recent months, with diplomatic clashes erupting over oil and gas exploration and fishing rights.
Philippine officials have said the issue is at the top of concerns they will ventilate at the summit.
ASEAN, founded in 1967 as a bulwark against communism in the Cold War era, has often been caught in the crosscurrents of major conflicts. Currently, the bloc is walking a tightrope between a rising China and an America that’s reasserting its status as an Asia-Pacific power.
Both wield tremendous influence on ASEAN, which has become a battleground for political and security clout and export markets. After being presided last year by Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship goes to smaller, less democratic nations led by Cambodia, a known China ally.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Phnom Penh on the eve of the summit. China also rapidly came to the rescue after Cambodia sought help for the logistical nightmare of managing ASEAN, which holds more than 1,000 meetings each year.
China donated USD 400,000 worth of equipment, including 200 desktop computers, 100 laptops, 60 laser printers and 20 fax machines, along with voice recorders, projectors and scanners, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
The summit’s main agenda on Tuesday was to ensure that Southeast Asia is on track to meet an ambitious goal of transforming in three years into an EU-like community: a single market and production base, where people and goods can travel seamlessly. A shared currency is not being considered.
The move has been seen as a crucial leverage amid the rise of Asian powerhouses like China and India.
Surin said ASEAN “is on track” of meeting the 2015 deadline, although there are some issues, including a delay by some members to work on needed legislation.
Leaders will have a chance to raise any issue when they closet themselves on Wednesday in a traditional retreat — a kind of diplomatic free-for-all discussions.
Those discussions have frequently used to reprimand Myanmar, which until last year was ruled by a military junta with an atrocious human rights record. Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997 despite vehement protests from the US and European governments.
Surin said a wave of reforms in Myanmar in recent months, including by-elections on Sunday that appear to have sent pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament, is a welcome change.
“It’s generally a relief that it is moving away from being a contentious issue between us and our dialogue partners and sometimes among ourselves,” Surin said.
ASEAN was founded by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand as a trade bloc that later evolved into a political, cultural and economic club. Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia joined from 1984 to 1999.