|U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, poses with other East Asia Summit leaders before a gala dinner.- REUTERS|
Under Indonesia’s chairmanship this year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations shot from side show to center stage of East Asian diplomacy. But what happens next year when the 10-nation talk show is hosted by one of its less mighty members: Cambodia?
Indonesia asked to host this year as sort of a victory lap to show it is healthy, happy and ready to start pulling the weight and respect it thinks it deserves in the world. Its economy is booming, its democracy is working and it wants its geopolitical profile to reflect that it has the world’s fourth largest population and the biggest economy in Southeast Asia.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa want to use Asean to help put a spotlight Indonesia, bringing it out of the shadows of China and India. Under their leadership Asean – previously usually only known for its grand dinners and bland declarations — has been involved in easing tensions in the deadly border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and it has helped push the military-backed government of Myanmar to reform.
It hosted a superpower summit on the resort Island of Bali with US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and leaders from Japan, Australia, Russia and elsewhere discussing their views on security and commerce in the region.
The East Asia Summit also attracted some of the tightest security and one biggest media mobs the island has ever seen. As the annual Asean summit wound down this weekend some diplomats wondered whether the momentum can continue under Cambodia which has neither the economic punch nor political pull of Indonesia.
“The framework, the instruments, processes and systems are in place so the momentum from this year is going to last for a few years,” said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of Asean in an Interview with the Wall Street Journal. However Cambodia will “probably not (lead) with the same weight and not with the same connectivity around the world,” as Indonesia, he said.
After Cambodia, the group will continue to be headed by Asian Tiger cubs as Brunei is scheduled to chair Asean in 2013 and then Myanmar the following year. It won’t be until 2015 that another big member country, Malaysia, is in charge.
“The potential of Asean is very significant and cannot be underestimated,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said. “We are hoping to continue this momentum because it is so important for us.” It may, however, be non-Asean members, the US and China, who decide how much attention the bloc will get in the coming years.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broadcast America’s new commitment to the region during their visit to Indonesia last week. The US plans to use Southeast Asia as a testing ground to find ways to interact with China on issues the two countries don’t agree upon, analysts said, specifically on China’s claims on much of the South China Sea.
So as long as the U.S. and China continue to show up at the meetings, Asean should continue to grab headlines and hopefully some perks for its members as the world’s biggest powers compete to charm them.