Foreign Policy Blogs

2012 ASEAN Summit — Phnom Penh, Cambodia

2012 ASEAN Summit -- Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Photo: The Bangkok Post

The 2012 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit will take place April 3rd and 4th in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. As the new chair of the regional bloc for the 2012 year, Cambodia will have an opportunity to show off its capital city’s latest developments, both socioeconomic and political. The streets are already being decked out with symbols of national pride, and flags of the other nine member countries of ASEAN have been hung from the street lights of Phnom Penh’s busiest boulevards. Moreover, judging from the level of security already being dispatched onto the streets for last week’s meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Myanmar’s Presidnet Thien Sen, no one anticipates a repeat of the 2009 summit from Pattaya, Thailand. That summit was abandoned once Red Shirt protesters stormed the resort where the conference was taking place, resulting in delegates having to be airlifted away from the top of the hotel.

It is a monumental achievement for Cambodia which is just two decades removed from a prolonged civil conflict which devastated the country, nearly eradicated Khmer culture, and resulted in approximately 2 million deaths. During that time, regional relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors were poor to say the least, save for China, which supported the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

Today, however, functionalism is alive and well. As British scholar David Mitrany theorized, the benefits of increased regional integration on limited matters eventually “spill over” into bigger, more important areas. It starts out small: first, maybe a group of countries agree to make the process of obtaining a visa in one another’s countries easier for their respective citizens. Later on, broader trade agreements are signed. Before you know it, the mutual interest of all parties involved mandates closer cooperation and interdependence on a whole range of issues from education and trade, to nuclear security and combatting terrorism.

The underlying theme of the summit is cooperation. Perhaps this is why Cambodia has decided to block the issue of the conflict in the South China Sea from making the docket of topics to discuss. It is a thorny issue indeed, with six countries all claiming ownership of the Spratly Islands atoll, four of which are ASEAN member states.

China, who is not a member of ASEAN, will of course be kept informed of the summit’s proceedings by their two closest allies in Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Laos. Beijing is another claimant of the island chain, believed to hold vast deposits of oil and natural gas, and has had several flare ups with Vietnam and the Philippines over the past several months on the water.

The hot button topic is the situation in Myanmar. Reforms in the now-nominally civilian controlled country have been happening at a breakneck pace throughout the past five months. Political prisoners have been released, unions will be allowed to form, and by-elections have been called for April 1st. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, is expected to score major victories. This past week, Myanmar President Thien Sen announced that international electoral monitors will be permitted to observe the process to ensure the proceeding’s transparency. Free and fair elections are a prerequisite for the removal of U.S.-sponsored sanctions dating from when the country was ruled by an iron-fisted military junta.

And of course the United States will be discussed as well. The administration of President Barack Obama has indicated that the Asia-Pacific region will be a key area of focus in the coming months and years as Washington attempts to end the two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shift its attention further East.

I will be reporting during the summit for the Foreign Policy Association’s blog network.



Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.