Ahead of a court ruling due on July 12 over the disputed South China Sea that will be seen as a litmus test of how China’s increasing power will engage with other nations and international arbitrators, Cambodian analysts say the country must remain neutral.
The case, filed by the Philippines at the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague argues that a collection of Chinese-controlled outcrops and reefs in the contested waters do not qualify of recognition as exclusive economic zones, which would grant China economic control of up to 200 nautical miles of the surrounding sea.
China, which considers almost the entire resource-rich waterway as its own, has rejected the suit and ignored the proceedings. China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea conflict with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
While the decision due on July 12 is unenforceable, China’s reaction will speak volumes about how it views its role in the region, analysts say, while thus far it has cast itself as a victim of American strategic dominance in East Asia.
“If the judgment by the court does not serve peace and development, I think that Cambodia must think carefully before taking any action,” said Sombo Manara, a professor of history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Kung Phoak, president of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS), said the conflict would not reach the level of all-out military conflict, but “we have to look at all aspects of the history of the region where country-to-country problems were solved.”
“When we won the case,” he said, referring to a November 2013 ruling over the Preah Vihear temple at the International Court of Justice, “nobody [in Asean] issued any statements to support the judgment made by the court. So we should be fair to other Asean members.”
During a visit to Cambodia in April, Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi defended the country’s construction activities in the South China Sea and accused the Philippines of lacking the will to resolve the dispute bilaterally.
Chheang Vannarith, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the verdict, which is expected to at least partially favor the Philippines, would put pressure on the Chinese leadership to resolve the dispute.
“If China continues to expand the so-called artificial islands in the Scarborough Shoal, the dispute would reach boiling point, meaning an armed conflict could take place between China and the Philippines in the disputed area,” he said.
Cambodia is reported to favor China, its largest aid and loans provider, in the dispute, despite maintaining an ostensibly neutral stance.
On June 28, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech that the ruling party would not support a statement supporting the verdict of the PCA.
With the verdict expected shortly, China is due to conclude military exercises near the contested Paracel Islands begun just under a week ago, a move that was interpreted as a show of defiance ahead of the ruling.