Cambodia’s Big Role To Play In The South China Sea Conflict

Posted on by Alex Watts


The last time a Chinese Head of State visited Cambodia was 12 years ago, so the timing of President Hu Jintao’s visit just four days before Cambodia chairs a major regional summit may be a coincidence.

But no doubt his arrival in Phnom Penh today will be viewed by some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an example of China’s growing assertiveness in a region that it’s long had one foot in.

The economic bloc – made up of Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – will discuss a range of issues like climate change, disaster management, workers’ rights, agriculture, tourism, human trafficking, as well as plans for a drug-free zone to be set up across SE Asia within the next three years.

But the elephant in the room – the decades old dispute over who owns the South China Sea, or East Sea if you live in Vietnam – is unlikely to get much table time, with Cambodia already saying the issue will be off the agenda, and Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand also reluctant to get involved.

China’s claim – as can be seen in the highlighted area of the top picture – is by far the largest, covering most of the sea’s 1.7 million sq km, including the potentially oil and gas rich Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

But with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei all claiming territories, and several naval skirmishes last year ratcheting up tensions, any attempt to sweep the dispute under the carpet will only test worsening relations in ASEAN – an economic zone with around 600 million people, or 9% of the world’s population.

Officials in the Philippines – which last year scrambled planes to the disputed Reed Bank area when Chinese ships threatened to ram a Philippine research vessel – told Reuters they are “very frustrated” over what they claim are Chinese attempts to block discussions in Phnom Penh.

They said they would still raise the matter at next week’s summit even though Cambodia has declared it off the table. And Vietnam also wants the issue resolved with its ancient, arch-enemy China after accusing Beijing of sabotage last June, saying three Chinese patrol boats deliberately severed the cable of one of its survey ships.

Some political observers say Cambodia would improve its image in the world if it was to take a strong independent stance as head of ASEAN this year and tested its relationship with China. It would also help its push for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council by proving it can be a neutral mediator in foreign affairs.

But the Cambodian government won’t want to upset its biggest investor – an allegiance that last year saw China plough a whopping $8.9bn into the country – despite saying China’s investments come with no strings attached.

Indeed several more major contracts and a joint statement are expected to be announced during Hu Jintao’s state visit this week – an historic event that “will deepen bilateral relations in all fields, especially in politics, economics, trade, and culture,” according to Pan Guangxue, the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia.

Considering that China already owns huge chunks of the country, it’s hard to know what else could be announced. But it will be interesting to see just how much discussion time, if any, the South China Sea issue does get, especially as trade between Beijing and ASEAN is expected to more than double from $231bn to $500bn by 2015, making China the bloc’s biggest trading partner, according to China expert Dr Ken Shao of Australia’s Murdoch University.

The way it’s going, the row has every chance of blowing up into a full-scale territorial dispute, with the US now taking a much greater interest in the area. China has stressed that it does not want to see any “internationalisation” of the conflict and says that countries not involved should keep their noses out.

Last year, it sharply rebuked US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she said America supported the freedom of navigation in the area, and offered to facilitate multi-lateral talks on the disputes.

America is now holding talks with Australia about setting up a new base for surveillance aircraft in the Cocos Islands, some 3,000km west of Australia, which would allow US planes to spy on the South China Sea. And next month, it will hold joint military drills with the Philippines near the Spratly Islands – moves that will only raise the stakes in the long-standing row about territorial waters in SE Asia.

“It appears that, despite its denials and claims to neutrality, the US has sided with the ASEAN claimants – its ally the Philippines, and Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam,” warns maritime policy analyst Mark Valencia, of the Maritime Institute of Malaysia.

“Ironically, US backing may make it more difficult for ASEAN and China to agree on a code of conduct because some claimants may be more assertive and even take riskier actions than they otherwise would, increasing instability in the South China Sea. Some even argue that this works to the US advantage by pushing some ASEAN members toward the US.”

If China doesn’t want to see any ‘internationalisation’ of these tensions, then surely next week’s regional summit is an ideal place to discuss them – even if it only makes some head-way before the planned ASEAN-China summit in Phnom Penh in November.

If the dispute is ducked, observers may question how long a bloc of states that don’t fully trust each other will last, and whether some members will look ever more to the US for help.

With China’s military might increasing fast, and America’s “pivot” towards Asia in defence and foreign policy, a peaceful solution to the conflict is looking ever more desperate. Cambodia – a lowly pawn on the table, but with a big role to play this year – may have no claim to the sea, but it can’t kid itself it won’t be affected if diplomacy does fail. Perhaps now is the time to find its voice.

Graphic: University of Southern California

Alex Watts

Alex’s new book, ‘Down and Out in London and Padstow’ is now available in paperback via Amazon

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3 Responses to Cambodia’s Big Role To Play In The South China Sea Conflict

  1. Devo says:

    Very well written and an interesting read, thankyou.

  2. JinTao says:

    China has always been a close allie of Cambodia. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia the Chinese retalliate and sent their forces to counter attack the Vietnamese even though it was too late. This traditional ties can be seen by the support of the Khmer government for China claims. Also its not unsual for China to loan large sum of momeny to Cambodia, just because it happend on the eve of the ASEAN summit does not mean we are bought.

  3. BarangBuddha says:

    Let’s see who comes out ahead in this China-ASEAN-USA dispute:


    China – North Korea

    USA – Japan [“unsinkable aircraft carrier” #1], Korea, Taiwan [unsinkable aircraft carrier #2], Philippines [unsinkable aircraft carrier #3, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Vietnam (un-official), Malaysia (probably), Indonesia (probably)


    China – 1 refurbed eastern-european training “aircraft” carrier with no aircraft

    USA: 14 state of the art aircraft carrier battle groups, with battle hardened officer and enlisted corps.

    ASEAN: Decent Japanese and Aus navies; assorted parade ships of other nations.

    I know which side I’m betting on.

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