PHNOM PENH - Cambodia’s foreign minister says a special meeting between Asean ministers and China is “crucial,” following meetings with his Chinese counterpart this week.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong met with Wang Yi, who was on a two-day visit, to have bilateral talks over security, economics and trade.
Wang told reporters after the meetings that China was interested in protecting Cambodia from “outside” interests.
Cambodia’s close relationship with China came under close scrutiny last year, when during a major Asean summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia appeared to be working in China’s interests over the South China Sea issue, where several Asean nations have disputed claims with their larger neighbor.
At the end of that meeting, Asean ministers for the first time in history were unable to agree on the language of a joint declaration, a signal of ongoing controversy among ministers.
Hor Namhong told reporters Wednesday that Asean ministers should consider a closer relationship with China as they head into talks in Beijing Aug. 28 to Aug. 30 aimed at easing tensions over the South China Sea.
“The special meeting of Asean foreign ministers with China is crucial to consolidate friendship and strategic cooperation between Asean and China,” he said.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, which has led to maritime tensions, including standoffs between vessels.
The sea is a major international thoroughfare with oil and gas riches and has become a serious stumbling block for Asean affairs and Asian security.
“I hope that the meeting in Beijing at the end of the move will improve and consolidate the relationship between Asean and China and better understanding,” Hor Namhong said Wednesday.
The meeting in Beijing comes after a meeting of Asean foreign affairs ministers in Hua Hin, Thailand, on Aug. 14, during which Asean officials said they would speak with “one voice” with China. Hor Namhong did not attend that meeting.
Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told VOA Khmer the upcoming meeting in Beijing could bring a “fruitful result” in easing tensions over the sea.
At issue is a so-called Declaration of Conduct that would govern how states act toward each other in the South China Sea, despite the overlapping claims.
Kao Kim Hourn called the declaration the basis of cooperation between Asean states and China.
However, some observers do not believe that China has Asean’s best interests at heart.
“The strategy of China is to divide Asean,” independent analyst Lao Monghay told VOA Khmer. “It succeeded in the summit in Cambodia last year.”
Wang Yi’s visit this week, which coincides both with a political deadlock in Cambodia and the upcoming Asean-China meeting, demonstrated close ties between the two countries.
During his visit, Wang congratulated the Cambodian People’s Party on an election win, despite an ongoing dispute between the ruling party and the opposition over widespread allegations of irregularities. The statement was a clear indicator of China’s support for the ruling party, political observers say.
But Cambodia’s close ties with China could be harmful to the country in the long term, Phat Kosal, an assistant professor at City University of New York, told VOA Khmer recently.
Cambodia must be wary of putting itself under the influence of a superpower, he said.
“Every superpower wants to serve its own interests, regardless,” Phat Kosal said. “Cambodia now has sufficient resources to walk forward without depending on superpowers.”
Asean membership can help, he said.
“Asean is a community that enables Cambodia to be independent from superpowers,” he said. “We are small, but with multidirectional policies, other countries, such the United States, Australia, India, Japan, can help with socio-economic develop of the country, rather than sheltering under only one tree.”
China and the CPP have similar policies of noninterference of others’ affairs, he said.
“The CPP loves noninterference policies the most, because it can get Chinese aid without conditions,” Phat Kosal said. “Even though China does not demand that Cambodia practice democracy and respect human rights, it requires Cambodia to support its policies in terms of diplomacy and investment in the country, which impacts Cambodia’s interests in the future.”