Sunday, 13 February 2011 15:09 DAP-NEWS
PHNOM PENH, Feb. 12, Kyodo - Even as much of the world's attention focuses on Tunisia and Egypt in the first weeks of 2011, at least one Asian diplomat believes a new front for global concern is emerging on the Thai-Cambodian border.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Kyodo News in Phnom Penh that four days of heavy artillery salvos across the border that left at least ten dead, almost 100 wounded and tens of thousands of civilians displaced early this month may be the heating-up of an emerging U.S.-China rivalry for influence in Southeast Asia, rather than a simple land dispute between neighboring countries.
On the surface, the dispute near the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Preah Vihear Temple that has been festering since July 2008 is a clash of nationalisms exacerbated by Thai internal politics.
But the diplomat suggested the recent clashes are also a sign the United States may be ''stirring the waters'' and taking renewed interest in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
''The United States, in recent years, has come to destabilize ASEAN,'' the diplomat said.
''The U.S. came to divide ASEAN through a new approach by cutting the region apart and that is why the U.S. is choosing close ties with four lower Mekong countries, as well as an expression of interest in the South China Sea and engaging in military exercises in the region.''
''The U.S. war game concerning the border conflict is to put pressure on (Cambodian Prime Minister) Hun Sen, to reduce Hun Sen's power, to get Hun Sen out of China's firm hold and to force him to turn to the U.S. for help rather than just depending on China alone,'' he said.
Partly, it seems, the diplomat's view has been somewhat colored by a recent visit to Cambodia by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who told Cambodian students in November their country's leaders should seek balance in international relations.
''You look for balance. You don't want to get too dependent on any one country. You want to be able to have partnerships that cut across regional
geographic lines,'' she said.
Some, it seems, see her stressing of ''balance'' as having an undertone of pressing Cambodia to become less reliant on China and on ASEAN.
Others suggest the longstanding U.S. relationship with Thailand means it is on one side in the region, China is on the other and ASEAN is being shown to be an ineffectual pawn somewhere in the middle.
Chea Vannath, an independent analyst in Phnom Penh, said the conflict between the two ASEAN members cannot help but have serious impact on the association.
''It shows that ASEAN is not mature enough to solve the issue in a more civilized manner. ASEAN needs to have another principle -- motto -- about the 'ballot' and not the 'bullet.' To put down the gun, take up the Dharma,'' she said.
And Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for International Cooperation, said ASEAN's image has already been damaged
by the border war.
''It demonstrates the limitations of ASEAN in dealing with regional conflict. However, it is also an opportunity for ASEAN to reflect and rethink about creating an effective conflict resolution mechanism which gives a breakthrough for future development.
ASEAN needs to create ASEAN peace keeping forces ready to cooperate with the U.N. and ready to deploy to prevent war and conflict. It is a significant turning point for ASEAN. All ASEAN members should move forward with this,'' he said.
One question is, however, is ASEAN able to act effectively at all with China and the United States somewhere in the shadows?
Several analysts say the dispute is local -- Thailand using Preah Vihear to get voter support, stir up the spirit of nationalism and show off.
Thai military supremacy while Cambodia is showing off an upgraded military able to counter attacks, stirring up solidarity with the ruling party and for the ruling party to be ''recognized as a defender of Cambodian sovereignty and integrity.''
Others, such as the Asian diplomat, see more sinister motives.
The latest armed clashes broke out, essentially, over Chinese New Year and while thousands of U.S. troops are engaged in annual military exercises with the Thai military in some areas a just a few hundred kilometers from the border clash point.
The questions in Phnom Penh at least are whose nose is being tweaked and whose might is being showcased?
Next week, the dispute moves to the U.N. Security Council where both China and the United States hold vetoes.
How those two powers react to the Cambodian desire to have international intervention in its dispute with Thailand may offer some indication of whether the Phnom Penh diplomat's concerns about Chinese-U.S. rivalry emerging in Southeast Asia are prescient, or paranoid.
Their reactions may also offer some indication of how ASEAN will fare Feb. 22 in Jakarta when its foreign ministers meet to discuss the increasingly hostile relations between two of its 10 members.