WASHINGTON - As Cambodia prepares to host a series of top-level meetings in Phnom Penh next week, questions remain over how it will approach major issues such as the South China Sea.
Cambodia was heavily criticized for its behavior in an Asean meeting in July that ended in a deadlock among Southeast Asian ministers over language about the South China Sea, which sees overlapping claims among several Asean states and China. Cambodia was seen as furthering the interests of China, a major donor and investor in the country, ahead of those of regional partners.
Analysts now say next week’s meeting will be a test of whether Cambodia will continue to act counter to the interests of Asean.
Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told VOA Khmer that Asean leaders need to have “one voice” in their discussions with China, even if the bloc doesn’t have a conflict resolution mechanism yet for disputes over the sea.
“We are only a mechanism to help compromise and to prevent escalation of the conflict,” he said.
That means any code of conduct agreed upon within Asean will not live up to the expectations of some.
Nevertheless, Asean leaders need to have a thorough discussion ahead of the Asean summit next week to understand the positions of each of its members ahead of talks with China.
“I think Cambodia has learned its lesson as is currently working its diplomatic skills to facilitate in-depth discussions between countries in the region on the issue,” he said.
Chheang Vannarith and other analysts doubt that next week’s meetings will bring about a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
Ernie Bower, who heads the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told VOA Khmer that China overplayed its hand by pushing Cambodia in July.
“They put a lot of pressure on Cambodia,” he said.
This caused Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to break with tradition, he said.
As a result, for the first time in decades, Asean ministers were unable to draft a joint statement announcing the results of the meeting. This was due to a disagreement over language about the South China Sea, officials said at the time. The two countries most affected were the Philippines and Vietnam, who have come close to conflict with China over the sea and are the two most outspoken claimants to its waterways, islands and resources.
“I think what we can expect in November is a more moderate position by China,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll push Cambodia as hard, and I think the Chinese have realized that their very aggressive approach to Asean, trying to manipulate Cambodia to pull issues like South China Sea out of the discussion, is not going to be useful.”
Bower called China’s approach to the issue in July “outdated.” “That’s not the way the China-Asean relationship would prosper,” he said. “I think there probably is recognition among the Chinese that talking about the South China Sea is something that has to be done at the East Asia Summit. If the East Asia Summit won’t talk about the most important security issues that involve the countries that are involved of the day, then it’s not going to be relevant, it’s not going to be a sustained leadership forum with high value.”
Even so, there is unlikely to be a final code of conduct for the sea that all parties will agree on by November, he said. China is in the midst of selecting new leadership. “So you’ll have a new Chinese leader coming to Cambodia, freshly minted,” he said. “And I think the Chinese will probably try to sort of do no harm.”
However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, told the Voice of America in Bangkok that China might also go the other way. The election of a new leader in China, part a major shift in China’s next generation of communist leaders, could mean that China will want to appear strong at the East Asia Summit and other meetings, he said.
“So some drama is in store, because China will apply a lot of pressure” on other countries, he said. “Remember that China has some domestic concerns now; they’re going through a leadership transition. It’s not a good time for the Chinese leadership to appear weak.”
Kao Kim Hourn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the South China Sea will likely be discussed at meetings next week, though it is unclear how much. “Previously, Asean leaders have raised this issue in this kind of agenda setting,” he told VOA Khmer.
He downplayed the importance of the failed meetings in July.
“Within the framework of Asean, it is a tradition that we can agree to disagree on various issues,” he said. “We’ve seen that as chair, Cambodia has tried to solve many challenges, especially sensitive issues.” Some sensitive topics cannot be put into joint statements, he said. “Because generally if we cannot agree on something, we cannot include it in a joint document.”
The upcoming summit will include more mutual understanding amid Asean states, he said. “Whether you want it or not, Asean will have central unity and solidarity and will approach every issue on the basis of friendship and cooperation.”