Friday, September 24, 2010

Obama to signal to China at ASEAN summit in New York

US President Barack Obama will seek to lock in deeper ties with Southeast Asia on Friday, as simmering regional maritime disputes reflect mounting security questions posed by a rising China.

Obama will host the second US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, a day after announcing he will make a twice-postponed visit to Indonesia in November.

The president has made engaging Southeast Asia a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and during a trip to Asia last year, dubbed himself America's first "Pacific President."

"Since the beginning of the administration, we've tried to rebuild relations with ASEAN," said Jeff Bader, Obama's senior director for Asia on the National Security Council.

"We felt that the region had not gotten the attention that it needed and deserved in much of the previous decade."

Friday's two-hour meeting is expected to discuss trade and investment, evolving East Asian security and economic architectures and the longstanding and so far unsuccessful US pressure for political change in Myanmar.

The talks take place amid rising tensions between Japan and China over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea, and after Beijing warned Obama not to interfere in its row with southeast Asian states in the South China Sea.

China asserts complete sovereignty over the potentially resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea.

However, ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, plus non-member Taiwan have competing claims.

Bader said that Obama briefly discussed the South China Sea issue with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao when they met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

"I am confident that the issue will be discussed by the president and the ASEAN leaders when they meet tomorrow -- that the president will discuss it, and a number of the ASEAN leaders will discuss it," he said.

Some observers expect the meeting to issue a statement affirming freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on Friday.

Anticipating the New York meeting, China warned the United States on Tuesday to keep out of the dispute.

"We are resolutely opposed to countries not involved interfering... and we oppose the internationalisation of the South China dispute because it will only make the issue more complicated," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

But Bader noted that in Hanoi in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said resolving the South China Sea dispute was "pivotal" to regional stability and called for multilateral talks -- a position opposed by Beijing.

Friday's meeting is also likely to touch, at the request of the US, on developments in Myanmar, after Washington admitted it was disappointed with its efforts to use dialogue to promote democratic change in the military-ruled state.

"I am sure the president will address the issue of Burma," said Bader, using Myanmar's former name.

The military regime there is set to go ahead with November 7 elections, despite wide concern over their credibility.

Bader said Washington hoped, but did not expect to see free and fair elections, and the release of political prisoners including democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Earlier, Obama announced that he would visit Indonesia in November, after he was this year forced to cancel two previous attempts to make the trip to the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

In a homecoming of sorts, he will visit a country where he spent several years as a boy with his late mother.

The visit will come after going to India and before heading to South Korea and Japan.

Friday's New York meeting will follow the inaugural summit that Obama held last year in Singapore with his counterparts from 10-member ASEAN.

Next month, in a further deepening of US ties with the region, Clinton will attend an East Asia Security summit in Hanoi.

Obama is expected to attend the forum from 2011 onwards.

ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The East Asia summit groups ASEAN, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

US-ASEAN meeting in New York

By Cheang Sokha (The Phnom Penh Post)

PRIME Minister Hun Sen left Cambodia yesterday to attend the 2nd ASEAN-US Leaders’ Meeting in New York, where regional security, economic cooperation and the upcoming elections in Myanmar are expected to top the agenda.

Sri Thamrong, a government adviser who is part of the Cambodian delegation to the US, said yesterday that US President Barack Obama and heads of state from ASEAN’s 10 member nations would use the meeting to discuss a wide range of issues.

“The leaders of ASEAN and the US will look into the issues of economic, climate change, natural disasters, power security, food security, counterterrorism and other regional issues,” he told reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport yesterday.

According to a draft copy of a joint statement set to be issued at meeting Friday, the US and ASEAN leaders plan to make pledges for “further enhance economic cooperation” with the aim of sustaining the recovery from the global economic downturn, and boosting job creation in each country. It noted that two-way trade between the US and the Southeast Asian bloc reached US$84 billion in the first six months of the year, up 28 percent over the same period last year.

The draft also addressed a series of regional flashpoints, including the situation in Myanmar, which is set to hold long-awaited but controversial elections on November 7. It stated that ASEAN welcomed the “continued US engagement” with the government of Myanmar, expressing hope that it will encourage the country’s military junta to “undertake political and economic reforms”.

“We… underscored the importance of a free, fair, inclusive and transparent general election on 7 November 2010 to the long term stability and prosperity of Myanmar,” it stated. Myanmar’s elections have drawn strong criticism from critics of the junta, who claim they are a merely a fig leaf for continued military rule.

The draft weighed in on the situation on the Korean Peninsula, making a joint call for the North Korean government to honour previous agreements to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes”. It also called for the “peaceful settlement of disputes in the region, including [the] South China Sea”, where island territories are claimed variously by China, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.

On the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, the ASEAN-US draft statement reaffirmed the countries’ commitment to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, first established in 1995. The treaty, the draft stated, “contributes towards global nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation”.

It added, “We are committed to maintain the prevention of the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction and build a world free of their threat.”

In addition to these talks, Sri Thamrong said that Prime Minister Hun Sen will also take the opportunity to hold sideline talks with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. He did not go into detail about the likely content of the talks, but said it would focus on “various issues” to do with the two countries’ ongoing border dispute.

Cambodian PM vows to discuss 'dirty debt' with US

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday he would urge the United States during an upcoming visit to write off a "dirty debt" of more than 300 million dollars dating back to the 1970s.

The low-interest loans were given to the government of General Lon Nol after it came to power in a US-backed coup in 1970.

The United States was the main financial and military supporter of Lon Nol's regime until it was toppled by the Khmer Rouge movement in April 1975.

Officially, the loans were to develop the country's agriculture sector and boost commodities exports.

But Hun Sen said the money paid for bombs which were "dropped on our heads" in the early 1970s by US forces targeting Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

"I will talk with the US about the debt," the premier said in a speech on national radio, ahead of his trip to New York for a meeting between US President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders on September 24.

"I would like (the US) to write it off. How can we pay back the dirty debt?" he added.

The two countries have long disagreed about repayment of the debt and Cambodia has argued the money was spent on arms which were ultimately used on its own people.

The early 1970s saw a heavy bombing campaign by US forces on the country, and the Cambodian government says these bombs were at least partially paid for with the loan money.

Exiled Cambodian opposition leader given jail term

Cambodian opposition party leader Sam Rainsy

Sam Rainsy was sentenced in his absence as he is living in self-imposed exile

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been sentenced to 10 years in jail after being found guilty of altering public documents and disinformation.

The government accused Mr Rainsy of manipulating a map to show that Vietnam had encroached on Cambodia's territory.

His party has accused the Cambodian government of ceding territory to its larger and more powerful neighbour.

Mr Rainsy was sentenced in his absence as he has been living in self-imposed exile overseas for the past year.

Unmarked border

The BBC's Guy Delauney in Phnom Penh says the only surprise was that Mr Rainsy's prison sentence was not longer.

He could have faced up to 18 years in prison, our correspondent says.

Cambodia and Vietnam officially began demarcating their contentious border in September 2006, in a bid to end decades of territorial disputes.

The 1,270km (790-mile) border has remained essentially unmarked and vague since French colonial times, with stone markers and boundary flags having disappeared, while trees once lining it were cut down.

In January, Mr Rainsy was given a two-year jail term for encouraging villagers to uproot border markings, in protest at Cambodia's government.

The Sam Rainsy Party has accused the government of using the judicial system to silence the opposition. But the government insists that the courts are independent - and simply enforcing the law.