Phnom Penh does not do Beijing’s bidding.
That was the strong message Cambodia’s foreign minister had for his critics at a press conference on Friday.
It comes amid unprecedented criticism that Phnom Penh had again prevented ASEAN from adopting a unified stance on the South China Sea dispute.
At major ASEAN meetings July 24-26 in Vientiane, Laos, a bevy of diplomats accused Phnom Penh of stonewalling to stop ASEAN from issuing a strongly worded rebuke to China on it actions in the sea dispute.
Pundits took to traditional and social media using terms such as “vassal,” “satrap” and “sugar-daddy” to describe Phnom Penh and Beijing’s relationship.
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon, who led the Cambodian delegation in Laos, responded to the criticism in the press conference by first asking a question: “What has Cambodia done in this matter?’’
Sokhon answered his own question: “[Cambodia] maintained its rightful stance that it would not side with any party.”
Cambodia had done ASEAN a service, he continued, acting effectively as a peacekeeper.
“[Cambodia] has contributed considerably to preventing the situation in the South China Sea from falling further into a deteriorated atmosphere via the facilitation of all relevant parties,” he said.
Not everyone is buying that story.
Cambodia has become increasingly financially dependent on China over the past decade. Hundreds of millions have poured in from Beijing for major infrastructure projects: dams, roads, bridges; business development: factories, apartment blocks, agriculture, as well as substantial military aid.
Critics have long warned that such support could influence the direction of Cambodia’s political development, and those fears appear to be coming to fruition in Cambodia taking China’s side against ASEAN in the South China Sea dispute.
Just prior to Cambodia standing firmly in China’s corner in Vientiane, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that China had pledged another $600 million in assistance.
“China has provided the Cambodian government a great deal of economic aid and substantial military assistance,” said John Ciorciari, a professor in public policy at the University of Michigan.
“Perhaps more importantly, China provides aid in a way that buttresses the CPP leadership against domestic challenges and international pressure to reform. That gives China considerable leverage in Phnom Penh,” Ciorciari told VOA Khmer in an email.
“For China, the South China Sea is a crucial foreign policy issue. Cambodian leaders attach less importance to the issue, making it an issue on which they are willing to follow China's lead.”
By defending China’s interests in regional meetings, Cambodia has immobilized ASEAN, which requires consensus to take an organizational stand on the issue, Ciorciari said.
And that immobilization helps China keep the South China Sea dispute out of multilateral channels and in bilateral channels, where Beijing has “greater bargaining power,” he said.
“Claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines would have to look outside of ASEAN for help in any event, but the inability to forge a unified Southeast Asian position clearly weakens their negotiating positions vis-a-vis Beijing,” he said.
In 2012, at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia successfully prevented the regional body from issuing a communiqué due to wording related to the South China Sea.
It was the first time in ASEAN’s history that it was unable to issue a communiqué after one of its annual summits.
While other ASEAN states may criticize Cambodia, they still need to be careful, because if they are too strident in their condemnation of Phnom Penh it may push the Cambodian government more deeply into the “open arms” of China, Ciorciari said.
In the short term, Cambodia benefits by supporting China over the South China Sea. However, in the long-term, the costs to Cambodia could be considerable, said Ou Virak, founder of Future Forum, a think tank based in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia would gain from being truly independent regarding the South China Sea issue, Ou Virak said.
“In the long term, we’ll lose benefit because first and foremost, we show our stance as a Chinese puppet in the dispute. This is what the world perceives. It affects our reputation,” he said.
“In the future there could be a fragility in ASEAN… Cambodia gained a lot from ASEAN that made it strong,” he added.
“We should take ourselves off this issue. Meaning, there should be no stance.”
“Whatever stance we take, there are [countries] angry at us. If we support the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries involved in the dispute, China will be angry at us. If we support China, the Americans, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, are angry at us,” Ou Virak said.
“It is not time for us to show any stance that could evoke anger from others.”
“We should focus on our internal issues in order to stand strong for ourselves first.”