As the 2012 Chair of ASEAN, Cambodia will host the upcoming 19th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) July 9 - 13. A number of meetings will also be hosted in Phnom Penh during this time, including the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting, the Post Ministerial Conference, and the 2nd East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ meeting.
The ARF has defined a three-stage process for building stronger relations in the region: confidence-building, preventative diplomacy, and conflict resolution. As of last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN is moving into the second-phase, with much focus on maritime cooperation, disaster assistance and management, and regional network building on “multilayered” level. In light of these preventative measures, a major event on the ARF’s agenda is the anticipated signing of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) treaty, which will include a Memorandum of Understanding between ASEAN and China to the treaty.
The signing of the treaty brings particular attention to the attendance of North Korea’s Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun. His attendance was confirmed after Cambodia’s Foreign Minister, Hor Namhong, visited North Korea early in June. Cambodia. Many countries have expressed hope that Minister Ui Chun’s presence is a promising sign, and indicates the potential for movement in the 6-party disarmament talks.
It is unknown whether nuclear issues and policies will be on the table for discussion with Minister Pak Ui-chun, but Cambodia is in a unique position facilitate the discussion because of the country’s strong ties with North Korea and China. The US has been calling on China to exert more pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, and has been met with a limited response.
This is one of the many topics of disagreement that has characterized the tension in the US-China relationship this past year, and the state of this relationship will be a major focus of the Forum. According to announcements by Kurt Campell, the US’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, China and the US aim to work on “uncontroversial projects” such as wildlife protection and humanitarian disaster relief efforts during the Forum, focusing on areas where strong ties can be built rather than highlighting matters of contention.
This effort comes in the wake of increasing tension between the countries regarding disputed claims in the South China Sea. The United States recently announced its “pivot” to Asia, with intentions to reposition 60% of its naval fleet in the Pacific and to build stronger US ties with Asian countries.
Dr. Evelyn Goh, an Associate Fellow of SIIA and Associate Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London shared her expectations for the Forum, highlighting the importance of fostering US-China relations and addressing the tougher issues:
“There are two different interpretations of the recent U.S. military ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia: the resuscitation of Washington’s Cold War hub-and-spokes military relationships based on a China containment paradigm; or the creation of new cooperative security partnerships with allies as well as competitors to address common security issues and mediate bilateral conflicts.”
The upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting will be a good opportunity for the Obama administration to emphasise that it seeks cooperation and partnership with China, starting with a less strident public attitude towards managing the South China Sea territorial conflicts.
More importantly, China should also use this ARF meeting as a crucial public forum to persuade its Southeast Asian neighbours that they have no need to turn to stronger defence ties with the U.S. because China will exercise self-restraint and engage in multilateral talks about these disputes."
Assistant Secretary Cambell has implied that the US and China are working on joint initiatives to strengthen ties, but did not disclose these projects. He did acknowledge that the ASEAN states and China are in the process of creating a “Code of Conduct” to address ownerships disputes over the South China Sea territory, but admitted that that US will not be part of the document creation or ratification. The role of the US in this process, however, has become increasingly important as other Asian nations look to the US for support.