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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Is Southeast Asia Becoming China's Playpen?

China never had to exert massive military might or economic investment to gain influence in Southeast Asia. After the US extended diplomatic recognition to the mainland in 1972, members of the Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN) followed suit. During the Cold War, the US aimed to dilute Soviet influence in the region and encouraged collaboration. With the US increasingly distracted in the Middle East, China has deepened its roots in Southeast Asia through extended engagement and economic diplomacy. “China has gained its influence in Southeast Asia less by ‘muscles’ and more by skillfully exploiting changes in the international and regional environment, absent any wise and strong US engagement with the region,” writes Singapore-based analyst Sheng Lijun. As the ASEAN summit convenes in the Philippines, members remain divided about the balance of power in the region: Some welcome China’s growing influence, while others long for a US counterweight. ASEAN expects to be the driving political force in Southeast Asia, so the two powers must likewise pursue balance, neither pushing too hard nor neglecting the region. – YaleGlobal

As China gains strategic advantage in Southeast Asia, the region seeks balance

Sheng Lijun
YaleGlobal, 11 January 2007.

Southeast Asia, here we come: Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing arrives in the Philippines for a summit meeting with ASEAN leaders, where China's profile is rising.

SINGAPORE: China’s diplomatic success in Southeast Asia has often been fortuitous. Changes in the international and regional strategic environment, together with US absent-mindedness and negligence of the region, have played a major role in a closer embrace of China and Southeast Asia. History shows how the international as well as the regional strategic landscape can change overnight.

That happened with US rapprochement with China in 1972, forcing Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN) nations such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines to swiftly change their respective policies on China and establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, despite no fundamental changes in China’s Southeast Asia policy and no massive increase in China’s military muscle and economic attractiveness.

When Deng Xiaoping stepped into power in 1978, eager to open China up and push into Southeast Asia, a blessing in disguise soon followed – Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia from 1979 to 1989. China made good use of this “occupation” and effectively kick-started its initial cooperation with ASEAN. This engagement, lasting more than a decade, laid a solid foundation for relations in the subsequent years. The US, concerned about Soviet influence in the region, acquiesced and even encouraged this strong engagement. Once again China succeeded in going deeper into Southeast Asia without massive increase in its military muscle and economic attractiveness.

Just as ASEAN put the Cambodia issue onto a backburner, the Cold War ended and new uncertainties emerged in the region. Deciding against a passive wait for changes, ASEAN took the initiative and actively pursued engaging all the major powers in the region. Up until the end of the Cold War, ASEAN attempted policy that would push all extra-regional big powers out of the region. Realizing that it was impossible to push them out of the region, ASEAN, from the 1990s, began what it called “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under the policy, major powers balance one another while ASEAN is the primary driving force for a constructive balance. For this purpose, ASEAN needed China’s political backing to play its role as the primary driving force in this process. Under this backdrop, China scored an easy diplomatic success by building its first official ties with the ASEAN grouping in 1991.

The ASEAN-China relationship in the early was tentative at best. Not long after came a big push: the Asian economic crisis in late 1997. While the US, for its own reasons, was slow to come to rescue, China readily responded to ASEAN’s acute need, with an immediate promise not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, and further destabilize the region. By November 1997, the lukewarm relationship evolved to the level of annual ASEAN+China summits.

This momentum receded as ASEAN countries withstood the shockwaves of the economic crisis, but then came another boost: The 9/11 terror attacks, which plunged the US into a seemingly endless war against terrorism. The increasing focus of the US on homeland security, Central Asia and the Middle East was accompanied by a negligence of Southeast Asia. In 2001, China made a diplomatic masterpiece by proposing a free-trade agreement with ASEAN to accelerate its cooperation with ASEAN, thus maintaining and even building its momentum in Southeast Asia.

The brief examination of recent history tells us that China has gained its influence in Southeast Asia less by “muscles” and more by skillfully exploiting changes in the international and regional environment, absent any wise and strong US engagement with the region – together providing strong “pulls” for ASEAN toward a China that is more than willing to “push” into the region.

Many observers have noted only the Chinese “pushes” without seeing ASEAN’s “pulls” and their strategic background. Without such “pulls,” however, China’s “pushes” will not get far and may backfire. Take the warming in China-Indonesia relations for example: The two nations have declared each other as strategic partners, which may have a lot to do with Muslim Indonesia’s intention to use China to balance the excessive US pressure against Islamic extremists in the country.

Indonesia’s overture to build defense ties with China and buy Chinese weapons can be interpreted as a tactical rather than a strategic re-orientation, a means to pressure the US to lift its arms embargo on Indonesia.

Myanmar and Cambodia both have close relations with China. In the case of Myanmar, the US has chosen not to engage with its government, likewise rejecting trade or investment. US trade sanctions and embargo against Myanmar still stand. China is Cambodia’s top investor and trade partner. The US, for political reasons, still has no significant trade or investment in Cambodia. If the US changes its policy and prioritizes these two countries, China may find it difficult to maintain its primacy there.

While there is less public talk of a “China threat,” Washington can take some comfort from the fact that distrust of China remains deep-rooted in the region and may grow if a rising China enters too deep. ASEAN countries have not joined the China bandwagon but “hedge,” engaging China while developing robust ties with the US and other extra-regional powers to balance China. Asian countries generally do not have much trust for one another and the US is perceived as the least distrusted of all major powers. Asian nations need the US as a balancer and double insurance when they develop their relations with China. ASEAN is aware that without a strong relationship with the US, China may take ASEAN for granted.

A vigorous but balanced relationship with the US is seen as not only security insurance but also an incentive for China to offer more economic sweeteners. Barring a sudden and major change in the international strategic landscape and a disaster in US Southeast Asia policy that would unexpectedly boost China’s influence by default, the more China pushes in deepening its relations with ASEAN, the more ASEAN may feel that it needs a strong relationship with the US and other extra-regional power to keep the balance.

The US is, thus, still favourably poised to keep and enhance its position in this region. However, as illustrated by recent history, success depends less on “muscles” and more on “brain” that can quickly exploit any changes in the strategic environment, less on how many resources a country has but on how much it is willing to spend. Washington does not lack the resources, but the willingness to use them profusely for the region, at least for now.

How deep can China push into Southeast Asia? At the moment, there is an active balance in the region, and any power that seeks dominance will likely push other powers, together with ASEAN, into a stronger resistance to maintain this balance. Any success China has in pushing further is less likely due to its growing “muscles” but more due to an ever-changing international and regional strategic environment that may suddenly multiply those “muscles” for a much deeper penetration. In this sense, continued US negligence of the region and absent-mindedness to the ever-changing strategic environment in the region will cost it dearly.

Sheng Lijun is a senior fellow of international relations at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Read more!

Microsoft donates 100,000 USD to ECCC in Cambodia

Microsoft Singapore, part of U.S. computer giant Microsoft CorpCK, donated 100,000 U.S. dollars to the U.N. side of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), local media said on Thursday.

"It would be nice if there were more," Helen Jarvis, chief of public affairs at the ECCC, was quoted by the Cambodia Daily as saying.

The fund was put toward the court's general operating budget, ECCC public affairs officer Peter Foster said. "It came with no strings attached," he added.

This is the first donation from a private company to the court, the paper said. The tribunal still faces a budgetary shortfall of nearly eight million U.S. dollars, most of it on the Cambodian side, it added.

After six years of talks, the U.N. and Cambodia agreed in 2003 to set up the ECCC to jointly hold trial of the former Democratic Kampuchea (DK) leaders. Formal trial is expected to begin in mid-2007 and the entire process will take three years at the cost of 56.3 million U.S. dollars.

The DK ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 and was accused of being responsible for the death of 1.7 million people.

Source: Xinhua Read more!

Parents offer $20,000 reward for information about a missing son

Student Eddie Gibson was 19 when he went missing on a trip to Cambodia in October 2004. Now, his devastated parents have returned to the country to offer a $20,000 reward for information. Here, his mother Jo, 52, tells of her heartache.

Jo, ground crew for British Airways, lives in Hove, Sussex, with her second husband, Tony Clarke, a 51-year-old businessman. She has two other sons, Elliott, 28, and Max, 18:
My happy life as Jo Gibson-Clarke, mother of three gorgeous sons, ended and another began at 7.15pm on November 1, 2004. I was standing with my former husband, Mike, waiting for our teenage son, Eddie, to return from a trip to Cambodia.

Waiting in the arrivals hall at Heathrow for Eddie to run into my arms, I could barely contain my excitement. But the minutes passed and the stream of back-packers gradually reduced to a trickle. Then the doors swung shut.

All the passengers had arrived - and Eddie wasn't there. It is almost impossible to describe the waves of shock and terror that ripped through me. Every day since then has been a living hell. I miss Eddie with a passion. His loss has ripped a hole in my heart that nothing can fill.
I hope he's alive, but as each day passes I know that's increasingly unlikely. But until his father and I know for certain what has happened to Eddie, we can't rest.

Now, when I hear mothers blithely planning their teenage children's gap years, my stomach churns. As they muse over the exciting challenges and mind-expanding experiences offered abroad, I want to scream: 'No, no, no.' Are they totally blind to the potential dangers?
When Eddie set off excitedly to the Far East before starting at Leeds University, I was every bit as naive and trusting. His friends were all doing the same thing. In my innocence, I even looked back to my own youth and recalled weeks spent Inter-Railing around Europe with two girlfriends.

But, as I've discovered, travelling around Europe is utterly different to backpacking around one of the most deprived areas of the world, where drugs are rife, foreigners are exploited for their money and life is cheap. If parents could see the truth - as I've been forced to - they'd think again.

Though Eddie came back safely from his gap year, he found it impossible to settle. Three weeks after starting university, he secretly withdrew £3,000 from his bank account and booked a flight to Bangkok. When we eventually spoke to him, he told us he was returning in three weeks. We haven't seen him since.

Today, I'd give anything to turn back the clock. Until Eddie left home, his life had been utterly charmed. In fact, I used to worry that he had almost had it too easy. He wasn't just good looking - 6ft tall with a smile that melted hearts - but charming and talented.
Sadly, Eddie's father Mike, 61, and I separated when Eddie was 11 and divorced in 2000. However, we are still extremely close. Eddie saw his dad regularly and Mike even came around every Sunday for family lunch.

I've agonised over whether Eddie was affected by the divorce, but I honestly don't believe he was. When I remarried, he was delighted to find himself with two stepbrothers - Tony's sons Jeremy, 21, and Matthew, 20.

Eddie was good at everything. Moving from his private prep school to Cardinal Newman School, Hove, and then on to Brighton and Hove sixth form college, he excelled at rugby, tennis and swimming while managing to get excellent levels.

He was always so focused. He knew what he wanted of life and went for it. were thrilled when he got a at Leeds University to read international management and Asian-Pacific studies. And when suggested a gap year, Mike and agreed happily.

Eddie was already well-travelled. We had taken family holidays every-where from South Africa to Cuba, Eddie was so sensible and resourceful that we didn't worry him. So in late 2003, he left Australia and the Far East with gang of seven friends, including stepbrother.

Tony and I joined him in Australia in January 2004, two before his 19th birthday. They were among the happiest days of my life. I took Eddie to the hairdressers - he wanted a few highlights. He was so hand-some and charming, all the stylists clustered around him. I felt immensely proud.

Later, we lunched beside Sydney Opera House and talked and talked. He was my son, but he also my friend. He held my in his enormous hands. It so sweet. When Eddie returned home May, he filled his room with souvenirs - Buddhas, candles and photos. He'd kept a diary and had taken hundreds of photos, which he loved to show us. He spent the rest of the year helping Mike at his commercial finance business.

I worried that after such an intense and exciting time, Eddie would find it hard to settle back down to his studies. But he reassured me that he'd learned the value of education and was determined to get a good degree. 'The people I've met in Cambodia are the poorest in the world, but they're also the kindest and happiest,' he told me. 'But I know that I need more in my life - and for that I need a degree.' Although money wasn't his priority, he talked of going into business.

So on September 15, 2004, I drove him to Leeds and settled him into his room. When I kissed him goodbye, I was convinced he was starting one of the best chap-ters of his life. He seemed so happy and excited about the future. How could I have guessed I'd never see him again?
I still don't know what happened in the next few weeks. No one does. Eddie wasn't naturally secretive, but once he was focused on something, he was single-minded. He didn't even tell his old schoolfriend, Josh - a room mate - that he was unhappy.

But one Sunday night, just a few days before he left, he rang me. 'I just want to hear your voice, Mum,' he said. I was touched but surprised. A few days later, he rang again and said he wasn't getting on very well with part of his course and was considering swopping. He was always so capable and sensible that I didn't worry unduly. But we now know he had already made up his mind: he was going back to Cambodia.

Preparing the way, he rang Mike and me to explain the battery was low in his mobile phone and we might not be able to reach him for a few days. Then, on October 4, he took a flight to Bangkok via Dubai, due to return on November 1. Once in Bangkok, he quickly moved to Cambodia, crossing the land border at Poipet - though, of course, we didn't know that then.
We only realised our son was missing when he failed to ring. His room mates hadn't seen him. He hadn't breathed a word. We were frantic.

Then, on October 20, I got an e-mail out of the blue from Phnom Penh. Reading it, I was horrified, but relieved. At least he was safe - or so I thought. He explained that he was terribly sorry to disappoint us, but that he'd realised after only one week at university that it wasn't for him. He felt he had to sort out his life and would be coming back home on November 1. He even gave me the flight number. I e-mailed back, reassuring him I wasn't angry, but making him promise he'd never, ever scare me like that again. Did he ever even read my e-mail? I don't know.

I heard once more from him, on October 24, when he sent another e-mail saying that he was coming home - then nothing. When he failed to arrive on the flight, we hoped against hope there'd been a mistake. We expected a knock on the door any second. Every time I heard a car draw up, I ran to the window. But it was never Eddie.

At first, the police refused to take us seriously. After all, Eddie was 18 and, supposedly, a seasoned traveller. But we knew it was totally out of character. We were so anxious that in December that year Mike flew out to Cambodia with Eddie's brother, Elliott, to try to find him. We've been out several times since.

Last June, British police even sent out a team - but no one has been able to find anything. We simply cannot rest until we know what has happened to him. Even if Eddie is dead, it will be better than living in this terrible limbo. That's why Mike and I have come back to Cambodia. We've had a private investigator on the case for two years, but he's uncovered nothing useful.
Now we're offering a $20,000 reward for information. That's a fortune in a country where the average policeman earns just $300 a year. We desperately hope it will tempt people to tell the truth. Someone must know something.

Being here is incredibly difficult. Eddie adored the country - and trusted the people implicitly. But I look around and all I see is danger. Scratch the surface and it's there. I've toured beaches, bars and backpackers' hang-outs and been horrified by the scenes. Do these kids' parents have the faintest idea what their children are up to? British teenagers are stoned out of their heads on cheap, potent drugs. Heroin, marijuana and metham-phetamines known as yabba or 'Nazi speed' are as cheap and easy to come by as cigarettes.

The British Ambassador has told us that every year tourists are found dead in their hotel rooms, killed by drugs which are more powerful than they bargained for. There are also tales about Cambodian 'taxi girls' - locals who make themselves available to the Western men for the duration of their stay - turning the tables on their clients and keeping them high on yabba while relieving them of their cash.

I am convinced that Eddie wasn't into drugs. Video footage we have seen of him just eight days before he was vanished taken by Ami - a local girl whom Eddie befriended - show him looking as clear-eyed as ever. Besides, Eddie hated being out of control and rarely even got drunk.
He was so health-conscious that when he helped me by doing the weekly shop, he'd return with loads of fruit and vegetables — not the usual biscuits and crisps most teenagers are into. Even his bed-room was neat and tidy.

My greatest fear is that someone killed him for his money. Eddie arrived with £3,000 — enough to feed a family for ten years in Cambodia. I don't know how discreet he was. Life is cheap: Cambodia's recent history of disorder and death during Pol Pot's regime has hard-ened people. The first time a kindly local explained that Cambodians would not think twice about killing my son for his money and then sim-ply burying the body, I felt sick. Now I suspect it's the truth.
Ami told me she loved Eddie — they met at a tourist bar - and was surprised when he disappeared without a word.

When her father died while Eddie was in Cambodia, knowing money was short, Eddie paid for his funeral - a gesture of typical generosity. We even have a video of him at the funeral, eight days before he disap-peared, looking fit and well.
It would be tempting to suspect Ami, but having visited her humble shack, I can see her life hasn't changed. If she stole from Eddie, where has the money gone? We have found records of Eddie booking into various hostels and I've spoken to the guide who helped him cross the border from Thailand, but no one can shed any light on why he didn't get on that plane back home.

We know that the border area between Thailand and Cambodia is particularly lawless, notorious for drugs, prostitution and gambling. Did someone murder Eddie hours before he was due to catch his flight home to safety? I just don't know.

We've had e-mails from students returning from the area, saying they think they met Eddie, and every time my hopes rise. They e-mail photos but then, as the images download, they're not Eddie - and I feel I've lost him all over again. There should be a health warning on countries like Thailand and Cambodia. If you want to go some-where and be unaccountable, it's the ideal place because there are no rules. Most visitors return safe and well, but when something goes wrong there is no safety net.

Eddie believed himself so resourceful - but he was a nice, middle-class boy from Sussex and had been wrapped in cotton wool all his life. What did he really know of the world? I try not to blame myself, but I look back at how calmly I let Eddie leave for the Far East and I feel like screaming. We haven't changed his room: it's still full of his souvenirs from Thailand and Cambodia. I treasure them for his sake. Eddie will be 22 on January 26. We won't celebrate, but we will mark the day with a small family party — as we did for his 21st. It's very hard.

We all grieve in different ways. His elder brother Elliott is convinced that Eddie has been murdered and feels we should all move on. For my part, I am in limbo. I gave him life, I loved him: I can't rest until I know what's happened. I carry his photo in a locket around my neck.
I cling to the hope that one day Eddie will walk through the door, with a huge smile on his face and a wealth of stories. If I didn't believe that, I'd go mad.

• If you have information or want to find out more about Eddie, go to or phone the Missing Persons Helpline on Freephone 0500 700 700. Read more!

Gun Play for Tourists a Remnant of Cambodia's War-Torn Past

09 Jan 2007 World Politics Watch Exclusive

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- For the cool price of $555, Lan Kosal will escort a client to a remote location in the Cambodian countryside to blow up a cow with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a grizzly form of entertainment popular among some backpackers visiting this poor Southeast Asian nation.The use of the Soviet-era launcher and its artillery is the relatively inexpensive part of the package, said Lan. "The real cost is the cow. You have to buy it before we let you kill it," he explained matter-of-factly.

Many tourists, he noted, aren't interested in firing bazookas at bovines or tossing hand grenades at a flock of chickens, another ghoulish attraction offered from the Kambol firing range he manages just outside of the Cambodian capital. Most just want the opportunity to fire a few dozen rounds from Cold War stalwart weaponry like the Russian AK-47 -- a favorite the world over among developing nations' armies and rebel and paramilitary groups alike -- or the U.S. M-16. Each is readily available for target practice and reasonably priced for firing ($30 for a 30-round clip) at the Kambol Shooting Range. So are Uzis and an array of handguns, even a Thompson machine gun made famous as the weapon of choice among American gangsters during the heyday of Al Capone and prohibition.

All manner of firearms are priced on the range's neatly laminated "menu" from which the everyone from the merely gun-curious to the arms enthusiast can choose. According to Lan, his stockpile is a remnant of decades of conflict, dating back to the days of World War II when Japan occupied the country. By the mid-1960s, Cambodia had allowed the North Vietnamese to set up bases within its territories, from which they launched attacks on the U.S.-backed southern Vietnamese forces.

By the early 1970s, the tables had turned. Cambodia was now fighting against the forces of communist North Vietnam while also combating communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge wrested control of the country and began its genocidal campaign to eradicate nearly 2 million people, the country was awash in weapons. Now, some 30 years later, the weaponry that shaped Cambodia's violent past has resurfaced in ranges like Kambol and a handful of others near Phnom Penh.British backpacker and gun novice Tom Janson shook his head in disbelief while perusing Lan's stockpile, before settling on an AK-47.

"You can't go anywhere in England and do something like this," said Janson, who showed solid marksmanship while firing from 50 yards at paper targets emblazoned with a man's head and torso. By Cambodian government accounts, you can't do it here either. Government officials have repeatedly denied the existence of the firing ranges operating around the capital, claiming they have been closed for nearly a decade.

The most recent edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Cambodia notes that officials here decided "enough was enough" and that shooting ranges were no longer conducive to prompting the peaceful image the country has been cultivating after years of killing. The guide's account coincides with a law passed in 2005 regulating the use of weapons, which states that only the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of National Defense are permitted to operate firing ranges.

However, Lan told World Politics Watch that the government is aware of his operation and that soldiers from the nearby army base use his range for target practice in the morning. He also said that the government takes a percentage of his profits, a claim refuted by officials when questioned. Whether the government is profiting from tourists looking to pop off a few rounds or kill farm animals is a minor concern for many Cambodians, who are grateful the government has made weapon eradication a priority of late. Since the late 1990s, Cambodia has made a concerted effort round up the hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons littering the country.

Some 130,000 weapons have been collected and more than 180,000 destroyed, said the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in their 2006 country report on Cambodia. The effort has paid off according to the country's English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post. The paper has reported that the use of firearms in all acts of violence declined from 80 percent in 1994 to 30 percent in 2004.

Despite that success, arms eradication groups aren't keen on gun ranges like Kambol operating outside the law."Foreigners firing these weapons, it is illegal and it undermines the laws in place," said Prak Tepvichet, director of the Phnom Penh office of the global Working Group for Weapons Reduction."It's a problem of law enforcement," he said. It might be illegal, but for tourists seeking thrills, it's a chance to unleash a whole lot of heavy firepower. Read more!