Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) poses during the family photo at the 15th ASEAN-China summit meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, November 19, 2012. Also in the picture is Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen. REUTERS/ Samrang Pring
PHNOM PENH/BEIJING (Reuters) - When U.S. President Barack Obama and
more than a dozen leaders arrived in Cambodia for a regional summit
meeting this week, only one of them was feted with banners strung from
the venue gates.
"Welcome Prime Minister Wen Jiabao!" one proclaimed. "Long live the People's Republic of China!" read another.
the leaders left, the green-and-white banners were still festooned
outside Phnom Penh's Peace Palace, a fitting reminder of China's
powerful and growing clout as Beijing uses its influence - and money -
to win friends and frustrate those uneasy about its sweeping territorial
claims and rising military strength.
"Some states are easily
swayed by money. If they see cash, they easily throw away their
principles," said one Asian diplomat at the East Asia Summit, which
included heads of state from 10 Southeast Asia countries and
counterparts from the United States, China, Japan and other Asia-Pacific
"China has been throwing its weight around and buying the loyalties of some Asian states."
prime example is Cambodia, whose prime minister, Hun Sen, helped China
to notch up a succession of diplomatic victories at the summit. China
stalled debate on a resolution of maritime disputes in the South China
Sea, rebutted attempts by Southeast Asian nations to start formal talks
on the issue and avoided any rebuke from Obama over territorial
ambitions. Commentators declared China a clear summit winner.
closing statement by Hun Sen, this year's chair of the 10-member
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), made no mention of the
South China Sea, another victory for China's attempts to prevent
multilateral talks on the dispute.
China has poured investments
and loans into Cambodia in recent years, becoming its biggest trade
partner and bilateral creditor. Cambodia's debt to China now totals at
least $4.7 billion, about a third of its economy.
The price of
that largesse has become clear this year, say analysts, as Cambodia has
used its powers as ASEAN chair to restrict debate over the vexed issue
of China's maritime claims, dividing the group and infuriating U.S. ally
The 45-year-old ASEAN group has been built on a
foundation of unanimity and unity, but that has unravelled as it
struggles to cope with its biggest security challenge. In July, a
meeting of the region's foreign ministers broke down in unprecedented
acrimony and failed to agree a communique for the first time.
week's ASEAN meetings again deteriorated into bad-tempered sniping and
came close to a breakdown when Hun Sen adopted a draft statement saying
there was a consensus not to "internationalise" the South China Sea
dispute beyond ASEAN and China.
The Philippines, which sees its
alliance with the United States as a crucial check on China's claims at a
time when Washington is shifting its military focus back to Asia, made a
formal protest to Cambodia and succeeded in having that clause removed
from the final statement.
China then poked fun at Manila's
assertion that there had been no consensus. Eight out of 10 leaders had
agreed not to internationalise the dispute, meaning there was a
consensus, said Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.
"I suggest that people when attending the EAS (East Asia Summit) meetings have to be very good at mathematics," he said.
"That's 10 minus two, so which is bigger?"
claims a vast U-shaped line around the South China Sea that brushes up
against the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. The
area is thought to hold vast, untapped reserves of oil and natural gas,
and naval flashpoints between Chinese vessels and the Philippine and
Vietnamese navy have become increasingly common.
Hopes for a
diplomatic resolution within the ASEAN-China framework look bleak in the
next two years as tiny Brunei and then Myanmar take up the chairmanship
of the group.
Cambodia, like fellow "Mekong" countries Laos and
Myanmar, has been rapidly pulled into China's economic orbit through
rocketing trade and investment ties.
It has become customary for
Chinese officials to arrive in Cambodia bearing "gifts", such as the
$100 million investment that Wen announced on his arrival this week to
build the emerging country's biggest cement plant. China has moved
nimbly to set up free trade deals with Southeast Asia nations and has
played a dominant role in financing and building big infrastructure
projects in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
After the summit, Wen
visited Thailand where he signed an understanding to buy rice, which
should strongly lift Beijing's standing with a government that is a
close ally of the United States. Bangkok has built up record stockpiles
of 14 million tonnes of milled rice after a populist programme to pay
farmers more for their crops made exports unprofitable.
diplomatic efforts stall, China's options to back its claims with force
if needed are steadily growing with a military budget that outstrips the
combined spending of Southeast Asia.
As China ushered in a new
generation of leaders this month, outgoing President Hu Jintao made a
pointed reference to strengthening China's naval forces, protecting
maritime interests, and the need to "win local war."
make active planning for the use of military forces in peacetime, expand
and intensify military preparedness, and enhance the capability to
accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which
is to win local war in an information age," Hu said.
South China Sea, China is embroiled in a dispute with Japan, also a
close U.S. ally, over islands in the East China Sea.
stance is that it is not trying to become an offensive naval power, but
wants to secure its energy imports and boost development of maritime
natural resources, which are expected to represent 10 percent of its
economy by 2015.
But it is also wary of being encircled as the
United States refocuses its military clout on Asia in what Obama has
called a "pivot" back to the region as wars in the Middle East wind
"It is absolutely (a buildup)," said Ruan Zongze, deputy
director of the China Institute of International Studies, the think-tank
of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
"No matter what kind of
narrative you use, the reality is that America in the past three years
has been putting greater emphasis or focus on the west Pacific. That
raises a lot of questions for China."
China launched its first
aircraft carrier in September, increasing its ability to project forces
deeper into "blue-water" maritime territory. Bought from Ukraine
ostensibly to use as a floating casino, the Chinese navy spent years
refurbishing the carrier, which is undergoing sea trials. It also
test-flew two types of stealth fighters this year, the second one last
month - a smaller, more maneuverable model believed to be designed to be
deployed on an aircraft carrier.
"China has ambitions to become
the premier military power among its regional peers, and a serious
threat to U.S. maritime primacy in the Asia Pacific," said Sam
Roggeveen, an Asian defence analyst with the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
added that if China were to deploy more than one carrier and equip them
with high-performance stealth fighters, "it would become the
pre-eminent regional maritime power, with the ability to coerce
neighbours in disputes in which the U.S. prefers not to get involved".
By Stuart Grudgings and Terril Yue Jones
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Manuel Mogato in PHNOM PENH; Editing by Jason Szep and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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