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ASEAN Summit Draft Statement Includes Potential South China Sea Sticking Points

FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama, right, delivers remarks at the US-ASEAN meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov. 21, 2015.

FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama, right, delivers remarks at the US-ASEAN meeting at the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nov. 21, 2015.

A key agreement on U.S. and Asian engagement could include controversial references to maritime navigation and militarization.

According to an early draft of a document obtained by VOA Khmer, ASEAN leaders and President Barack Obama are discussing a set of points to be known as the “Sunnylands Principles," during a summit at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California.

The unprecedented engagement with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states is seen as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to counter the influence of a rising China.

The early draft given to VOA Khmer by a diplomat appears to be a precursor to a joint statement that could be released at the end of the two-day meeting Tuesday.

It is unclear to what extent agreement has been reached on the draft’s principals. The draft begins by saying the United States and ASEAN “take this opportunity to reaffirm the key principles that will guide our cooperation going forward.”

It affirms the two sides’ commitment to free trade and to building “stronger democracies, good governance, promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the promotion of tolerance and moderation.”

The draft principles appear to back a multilateral approach to dispute resolution, including “respect for ASEAN centrality as a guiding principle in shaping the multilateral architecture of the Asia-Pacific,” as one of the draft principles.

There are clear inferences to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between ASEAN nations and China.

When asked about a joint statement that included references to the South China Sea, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. will continue to work with ASEAN partners on a potential issue that may be raised together.

"It won't be focused primarily on the South China Sea and in it we consistently underscore our shared and the necessity of the resolve through peaceful and legal means," she added.

China and its ally in the region Cambodia have previously rejected calls from Vietnam and the Philippines for these disputes to be solved through ASEAN. China prefers to deal with disputed islands and atolls bilaterally with smaller nations.

Key principles in the draft affirm "peaceful resolution of disputes, including through arbitration, in accordance with international law" and "the importance of unimpeded lawful commerce, including the rights of freedom of navigation and over-flight as described in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as a commitment to non-militarization."

Cambodia and neighboring Laos, which have received large amounts of financial aid from China in recent years, could find themselves in a tricky position if asked to commit to these principles.

John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who studies Southeast Asia, told VOA Khmer the increased U.S. engagement with ASEAN, embodied by the Sunnylands summit, gave individual leaders like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen leverage, since ASEAN’s internal policies require consensus among the 10 states to commit to any action, including the issuance of a joint statement.

“U.S. officials want Cambodia not to block consensus when a majority of ASEAN members favor diplomatic language or action asserting a common stand on the South China Sea,” Ciorciari said. “In the past, especially when chairing ASEAN in 2012, Cambodia has been accused of serving as a Chinese lackey and keeping ASEAN from taking collective positions unfavorable to Beijing."

The United States has been accused of taking a soft line on human rights issues in Southeast Asia as it seeks to build its strategic position in the region. Critics have remarked that handing Hun Sen the credibility of an official visit to the United States would embolden the long-serving prime minister at a time when opposition leader Sam Rainsy has recently been forced back into exile.

On Thursday, U.S. National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes publicly raised concerns about the political climate in Cambodia, according to the Associated Press.

But Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and long-time Cambodia researcher, noted the criticism of Hun Sen’s government just before the Sunnylands summit came from Rhodes, rather than Secretary of State John Kerry, meaning human rights in Cambodia were not a foreign policy priority.

“The U.S. obviously wants Cambodia and the ASEAN nations to stand firm against Chinese territorial claims. However, given Cambodia’s relationship with China, why would they bite the hand that has fed them so generously?” Maguire asked. “Love him or hate him, Hun Sen has forgotten more about realpolitik than the entire Obama administration will ever know. When they were in diapers, he was on the battlefield.”

White House Correspondent Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report.

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