Hun Sen (l)
Hun Sen (l)Reuters

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) still have China on their minds as they open their summit in Cambodia.

The Cambodian hosts would actually have preferred to downgrade the issue of China, because China has traditionally been an ally of Cambodia and in the past has helped the country ward off stronger neighbors such as Vietnam and Thailand.

China's President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia in the run-up to the summit in the hope that the host nation could steer the summit clear of the South China Sea issue.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has tried his best and would like the grouping to work on narrowing the gap between the richer and poorer countries in ASEAN. Taking a leaf from the EU, the agenda calls for developing a single market allowing goods, services and labor to move freely between the organization's countries.

As opposed to the EU, ASEAN is not a club open only to democracies, but also includes hereditary monarchies and socialist countries such as Vietnam. Nevertheless, Hun Sen believes that unifying the region will allow it to successfully compete in the current global economy

The Philippines and Vietnam, however, insisted that the territorial issue of the South China Sea - that China claims as historic territorial waters - should be the main focus of the summit. China has seen the issue uniting Southeast Asian countries against her and increasing American influence.

Up to now, Beijing called for settling the issue via bilateral negotiations, but is now willing to make a concession by offering to send experts to draft a code of conduct for the sea - with ASEAN experts. This is unacceptable to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who in the name of organizational centrality, wants the organization to draft the code and then negotiate with China on a unified basis.

The member countries have also expressed their concern about North Korea's planned satellite launch.

One issue that the members could happily agree upon was a call for lifting sanctions against Myanmar (Burma), thanks to the relaxations implemented by the military regime, including free elections in some of the seats.

This allowed democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi to capture a seat in Parliament and her party to win the vast majority of the seats that it contested.

Burma had long been an embarrassment to the organization due to its repressive regime and economic isolation, but now things appear to be moving in a positive direction in both fields.

Given Western reaction to the changes in Burma and investor enthusiasm for tapping one of the last underdeveloped countries, the ASEAN appeal is guaranteed to find a receptive audience.