The ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia actually represents something of a strategic opportunity for China—can it use its influence with the two nations to bolster its argument that it is rising peacefully?
As a member of the UN Security Council, China has already called on the two parties to peacefully resolve the crisis, while supporting the UN view that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should take a leading role in facilitating dialogue on the issue. China's actions so far, then, appear to support its stated policy of securing an amicable, tranquil, and prosperous ASEAN neighbourhood, as well as its interests in boosting trade and security cooperation.
Still, China may have an opportunity to play a more prominent role in the resolution of the crisis through behind the scenes bilateral diplomacy in support of ASEAN's objectives. The question is whether or not China will be able to take advantage of this chance before the current conflict is resolved—or spirals out of control.
The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is the result of a larger, decades-old dispute between the two neighbours over the demarcation of their 798-kilometre border. The main point of contention is the Preah Vihear Temple, and although the two agreed to submit their dispute over the temple to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and abide by its decision, Thai nationalists refuse to accept the ICJ’s 1962 ruling giving sovereignty over the temple to Cambodia. This has led to periodic violence over the lands adjacent to the temple, which fall outside of the ICJ ruling. Tensions have been particularly high since Preah Vihear was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
In the years since the ICJ ruling, bilateral and regional agreements and mechanisms have been put in place to mitigate conflict between the neighbours. Both parties entered into the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which commits parties to resolve intra-state conflict without violence. A previous Thai government also signed the 2000 Memorandum of Understanding, which established a Joint Border Commission to peacefully resolve overlapping claims. These efforts appeared to be strengthened when a subsequent Thai government issued a 2008 Joint Communiqué with Cambodia which supported the World Heritage bid for Preah Vihear.
Despite these actions, though, important constituent groups in Thailand maintain that the status of Preah Vihear remains unresolved:
Yellow Shirts: These ultra-nationalists are vehemently opposed to Cambodian sovereignty claims over Preah Vihear. They used the Joint Communiqué to bring down the current government’s predecessor in 2008. They are faring poorly in polls and are likely leveraging the crisis as a way to gain legitimacy—perhaps through a coup.
Thai Military: The military has played the role of traditional guardian of the modern Thai state, including 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932. Some argue the Thai army sees the dispute as a way to entrench the armed forces at the centre of the country’s national security and political life.
Abhisit Government: The current Thai government argues that the failure of the Joint Border Commission to demarcate the land around the temple makes it impossible to resolve the status of the temple. With Abhisit facing pressure from all sides in upcoming national elections, his political manoeuvring remains limited on the issue.
Red Shirts: Red Shirts backing exiled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra area major component of the domestic conflict in Thailand. However, thisalso fuels the Thai border debate, given Thaksin's close relationship with Cambodia's leadership.
On the Cambodian side, there also appear to be barriers to finding a permanent resolution of the dispute. For one, the issue provides Cambodia's leader, Hun Sen, with some welcome political capital. The fighting also helps improve the political standing of his son, who reportedly led troops during part of the conflict, and likely is being groomed as a successor. Finally, the crisis certainly distracts Cambodians from other domestic issues, such as poverty, and foreign policy issues, such as the Mekong River development.
So where does China come in?
Beijing maintains warm relations with both neighbours, offering a geographical buffer and the countering of US and Vietnamese influence in the region. And, in addition to having a close historical relationship with both countries, China’s aid comes with few strings attached in terms of governance, providing a welcome contrast in Thai and Cambodian eyes with Western nations.
From a strategic perspective, the recent, relatively low levels of violence do little to threaten China's interests. As China maintains warm relations with both neighbours and largely follows a non-intervention policy, it’s in China's interests to refrain from overtly supporting either party, especially given the current lull in violence.
However, future escalation could yet threaten China's economic and security objectives in the region, which include sustaining economic growth through the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and enhancing security cooperation on non-traditional security issues that threaten stability along its frontier (particularly piracy, terrorism, and illicit goods trafficking). This suggests that it’s probably in China's long-term interests to consider leveraging its bilateral relationships with the combatants in support of ASEAN's efforts to mediate the crisis, as well as contributing to ASEAN's efforts to develop a more formal regional dispute resolution mechanism.
If China can do this, it wouldn’t just strengthen its standing in the region, but could well boost the country’s image in much of the rest of the world as well.