Beijing-friendly Cambodia and Laos pushed out to ASEAN’s fringe

Beijing-friendly Cambodia and Laos pushed out to ASEAN’s fringe

China’s rise exacerbates Southeast Asian bloc’s inherent tensions, experts say

PHNOM PENH — Meeting with U.S. diplomats in 2007, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, offered a blunt assessment of some of the newer ASEAN members.

Laos was just an “outpost for China” and Cambodia’s politics was “too personalized” around the country’s longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen, the late Singaporean statesman said.

ASEAN, formed in 1967 as a Cold War bulwark against the spread of communism in Asia, should not have rushed to expand beyond its five founding members in the 1990s, Lee said, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

Those five were: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

While newer entrants “muddied” ASEAN values, the rise of China was becoming a fundamental issue, Lee argued. Beijing would present its rise as inevitable, advertise the benefits of sharing its growth and force countries to choose to be “friend or foe.”

As the 37th ASEAN Summit gets underway, many of the weaknesses identified by Lee 13 years ago have proved Singapore’s founder to be prescient. As China’s ambitions in the region continue to grow in line with Lee’s prognostication, ASEAN tensions have only increased.