Cambodia’s foreign minister, Prak Sokhon, has said that the country is working behind the scenes to mediate disputes between its ally China and partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the South China Sea.
He also denied accusations that Cambodia was siding with China in the disputes and had blocked the issuance of yet another joint statement from Asean earlier this week.
“What Cambodia has done in this matter? First, [Cambodia] maintained its rightful stance that it would not side with any party, and especially [it] has considerably contributed to prevent the situation in the South China Sea from falling into a deteriorated atmosphere via the facilitation of all relevant parties,” he told reporters in Phnom Penh on Friday.
He claimed that the Philippines, which recently won an arbitration ruling in its dispute with China, had agreed to not include a phrase in the joint statement referring to countries involved in the disputes giving “full respect to legal and diplomatic process”, an apparent reference to the ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
On Monday, Wang Yi, Sokkhon’s Chinese counterpart, praised Cambodia’s abstention from issuing a statement in the wake of the court’s decision.
Earlier in July Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he had agreed to an additional $600 million in aid and loans from China, reportedly in exchange for diplomatic support over the South China Sea issue.
Chheng Vannarith, a political analyst specializing in the Asia Pacific region, said it would be difficult to maintain the appearance of neutrality while Cambodia continued to accept such large aid packages from its northern powerhouse ally.
“Pushing for what we call impartial neutrality means that if we do not have more trade and economic partners other than China we cannot have real independence.”
Sokhon’s comments followed a visit by National Assembly president Heng Samrin to China this week, where he met several high-ranking officials, including the vice president.