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For Prestige, Look To the South China Sea: Analysts

China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Many other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.
China claims the highlighted portion of the South China Sea. Many other governments also claim all or part of the South China Sea.

Political analysts say Cambodia should take advantage of its chairmanship of Asean this year in disputes over the South China Sea, but the country is reluctant to do so for fear of a damaging its relationship with China.

Arata Mahapatra, the director of the Center for Asian Strategic Studies in India, told VOA Khmer Thursday that playing the role of neutral mediator would help raise Cambodia’s international prestige at a time when it is seeking a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

“Half of Asean’s members are involved in the South China Sea conflict,” he said. “If Cambodia wants to ignore that, OK,” he said, but “it’s not good for Cambodia’s interests because other members will not be happy.”

Cambodia is preparing to host an Asean summit in Phnom Penh later this week, but it has said the South China Sea will not be on the agenda.

Maritime ownership over portions of the sea are contested by several Asean nations and Taiwan, while the entire sea is claimed by China, making it a complicated regional issue.

Fishing rights, access to waterways, ship movement and two archipelagos, the Spratlys and the Paracels, believed rich in oil and gas, are all at issue and a source of fear of escalated, armed conflict.

Although Cambodia is not a claimant to the sea, a strong leadership role as head of Asean could help it down the road, Mahapatra said.

“If you become a leader, or a member of the [Security Council], what would you do, because when you had the chair of Asean, you didn’t do anything,” he said.

However, Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, said there have not been requests from Asean nations for it to mediate disputes over the sea, so Cambodia need not get involved. On the other hand, she said, if it were able to improve the situation there, it would help its Security Council bid.

“Other countries will watch Cambodia as Asean chair to see how mature its foreign affairs are and whether the country is suitable for any position in the region or in the United Nations,” she said.

Cheam Yiep, a ruling party lawmaker, said Cambodia does not want to raise its profile “by disappointing other countries, including China.” Cambodia will push for an Asean-China working group on the matter, he said.

China is one of Cambodia’s largest benefactors, but it has demonstrated a firm position on the South China Sea.

“So, if we raise the topic of the South China Sea on the agenda of the meeting, it could affect the relationship between Cambodia and China, as well as Asean,” said Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Mahapatra said Cambodia should consider its long-term interests, but he warned: “If Cambodia gets too close to China or listens too much to China, then other countries will [move] away from Cambodia.”