PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – After Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin announced Monday that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be off the table at this week’s Asean meeting, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he was happy to keep the issue on the sidelines.
“I do not take any sides in the South China Sea dispute,” he said, during an inauguration event for a Chinese-funded bridge outside Phnom Penh. “But I’d like to encourage countries concerned in the dispute to continue negotiations with each other.”
For Cambodia, this is familiar territory. As China’s influence in Cambodia has grown, so too has its unwillingness to support fellow Southeast Asian nations in counteracting China’s rapid maritime expansion, analysts say.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei all contest China’s territorial claims, in an area that is a busy transport hub and potentially rich with oil and gas. They have called for a stop to construction that has seen China build islands throughout disputed areas, on which they’ve installed airstrips and ports.
Chinese influence in Cambodia
Alarming as this has been for its Asean neighbors, Cambodia has tacitly supported China’s designs, says Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia expert at The University of New South Wales.
“There’s no domestic cost to Hun Sen for standing by them on this,” Mr. Thayer said. “For him, shoring up Chinese support is essential. China is like a purring cat that knows it will be stroked.”
Chinese companies invested $427 million in Cambodia last year. Beijing has offered nearly $3 billion in loans since 1992. Last November, Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to provide Cambodia with more than $500 million in development loans annually. On Monday, Cambodia’s government announced that China has displaced South Korea as the top source of foreign tourists for Siem Reap.
The two countries’ military ties have strengthened in recent years. In early July, just days after a clash along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, a delegation of 23 high-ranking Cambodian military officials visited China on what they called a “friendship-boosting” trip.
“Nobody else in the region has such a close relationship with China,” Mr. Thayer said.
A checkered history
That relationship was on display in 2012, when Phnom Penh hosted the Asean summit. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who presided over the 2012 meetings, is widely blamed for preventing a unified response to China’s aims in the region. For the first time in 45 years, the group failed to release a joint communiqué, after Mr. Namhong vetoed language pertaining to the conflict.
Chheang Vannarith, an Asia-Pacific Studies lecturer at Leeds University, says that putting blame for the 2012 summit solely on Cambodia is unfair.
“Cambodia’s international image has been downgraded because of the 2012 fiasco,” he said. “However, they have stuck to the principle of non-interference and pursue a neutral position in the South China Sea.”
In late July, Mr. Namhong told reporters that Cambodia should act as a mediator between Asean countries and the Chinese. But Mr. Thayer says Cambodia has neither leverage nor trustworthiness in the region.
“I don’t see any role for Cambodia in this,” he said.
In response to China’s desire to avoid the South China Sea debate at the summit, the United States and several Southeast Asian foreign ministers have called on China to address territorial concerns. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters yesterday: “ASEAN can and should play a vital part in effecting an amicable settlement.”
Meanwhile, United States Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, Wednesday morning. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington yesterday that Mr. Kerry would bring up the territorial dispute with Mr. Yi, despite Chinese objections.
“This is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed,” Mr. Toner said.
Alongside the Philippines, the US has pledged to call for a halt to island building, military deployments and other “aggressive” actions.
Although the US has been outspoken in criticizing China’s South China Sea expansion, Mr. Thayer doesn’t expect a direct confrontation.
“The US and China are walking on eggshells, trying to outdo the other at being peaceful and non-aggressive,” he said. “At this point, all you can do [in the South China Sea] is prevent militarization.”