Kowtow or Cooperation in Asia?

TOKYO – When an American president’s first overseas trip following his re-election is to Asia, one can be sure that something big is afoot in the region. Indeed, Barack Obama’s decision to go first to impoverished and long-isolated Myanmar (Burma) attests to the potency of the changes underway in that country – and to US awareness of China’s efforts to shape an Asia that kowtows to its economic and foreign-policy interests.

Events at the ASEAN and East Asian leadership summits in Phnom Penh, the other key stop on Obama’s tour, confirmed this. At the ASEAN summit’s conclusion, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades, closed the meeting by proclaiming that all of the leaders had agreed not to “internationalize” sovereignty disputes over islands in the South China Sea. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, present at the summit to sign new multi-million-dollar aid agreements with Cambodia, smiled and nodded in agreement at this apparent acceptance of Chinese wishes.

Not so fast, said Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III. No such agreement had been made. Hun Sen had mischaracterized the discussions among ASEAN’s leaders.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was also present in Phnom Penh, agreed with Aquino. At the summit’s end, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore joined with Aquino in demanding that Hun Sen’s statement be amended. All six of these states have been pushing China to negotiate with ASEAN a multilateral process to resolve the South China Sea territorial disputes. China, dwarfing all of them, prefers bilateral talks.