Don’t blame Cambodia for ASEAN inaction on South China Sea

Author: Phoak Kung, CISS

Accusations against Cambodia made following the controversial 2012 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh fail to acknowledge the challenges that each member state faces with the rise of China.

In 2012, all eyes were on Cambodia to see how it would handle the contentious South China Sea maritime disputes between its close ally China and some ASEAN member states, namely the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. When ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, many were quick to point the finger at Cambodia, accusing its leaders of putting their interests ahead of ASEAN’s unity and centrality.

The fallout affected relations between Cambodia and its fellow ASEAN member states, most notably the Philippines. The Cambodian Ambassador to Manila was recalled after making a controversial comment on the Philippines and Vietnam, following the failure of ASEAN member states to agree on the wording of the joint communiqué relating to conflicting claims between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal.

The reason Cambodia was singled out was its growing economic dependence on China. Over the past decade, China has given billions of dollars in aid, loans and investments to Cambodia, making it the country’s largest investor. Cambodian leaders have consistently supported China on a number of issues including the ‘One China’ policy.

But Cambodia is hardly an exception. Many ASEAN leaders also look to Beijing for a share of China’s new initiatives in the region. In November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the establishment of a US$40 billion New Silk Road Strategy and a US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

It remains doubtful whether the 2012 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting would have ended any differently if another ASEAN member country was the Chair instead. Of course, Cambodia should have handled this matter in a more effective way and found a solution acceptable to all stakeholders. The failure to issue the joint communiqué greatly damaged the country’s image.

As a small and poor country, Cambodia does not want to take sides in regional and international disputes and would prefer to stay neutral. The growing tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands puts Cambodia between a rock and a hard place.

When Prime Minister Hun Sen met his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the 40th ASEAN–Japan Commemorative Summit in December 2013, he reiterated Cambodia’s neutral position. Cambodia conveys the same message to the Chinese government.

Cambodia is expected to act similarly regarding the South China Sea maritime disputes. It strongly supports a de-escalation of conflict to avoid endangering peace and disrupting trade activities in the region and beyond. The recent clashes between China, the Philippines and Vietnam pose a serious security concern.

Unilateral actions by the claimants make any future negotiations more difficult. Worse, the current military build-up in the South China Sea might lead to potential miscalculation and misjudgement. It is important to note that these disputes cannot be solved through force.

China insists on solving the maritime disputes through bilateral talks. China was furious when the Philippines brought the case for international arbitration at the Tribunal of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and suggested such unilateral action would only escalate the situation. But it makes sense for smaller states like the Philippines to use international law as a means to solve the disputes.

The Philippines alone will not be able to hammer out a fair deal with its more powerful negotiating counterpart, China. And even if the Tribunal decides in Manila’s favour, China might not comply. Regional organisations like ASEAN and the international community could take on a mediating role and assist smaller states in leveraging their bargaining power.

The good news is that any escalation of conflict will not benefit China either. China has been trying very hard to assure its nervous neighbours that its rise to global power status is not a threat but an opportunity for shared prosperity. China deeply understands that making enemies with countries in the region will only play into the hands of the United States, which is also seeking to maintain its sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific.

What Cambodia and other ASEAN member states should do is to push ahead with creating channels for dialogue. ASEAN is rightly assisting the claimants in developing the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea maritime disputes, the most promising route towards a peaceful resolution. All claimants should refrain from taking any unilateral actions that might undermine this process.

Putting the blame on Cambodia is not the answer. Whether ASEAN likes it or not, China’s influence in the region will only grow, and retreating to ultra-nationalism is unrealistic and dangerous. The rise of China should not be seen as a zero-sum game. What is needed now is a strong and united ASEAN that can effectively represent the voice of its members. This is what is needed as the group formalises its vision of a cohesive ASEAN Community in 2015.

Phoak Kung is co-founder and co-president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies. A version of this article was first published here by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.