Cambodian politicians and bureaucrats have embarked on an exercise in damage control amid continuing fallout from last week’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), when foreign ministers with Phnom Penh as chair, ended an annual summit in acrimony and failed to issue a joint communiqué.
That failure also sharply focused attention on disputes in the South China Sea and Cambodia’s cozy relationship with China and its desire to deal with any territorial disputes with members of the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a bilateral basis.
Heng Samrin, Chairman of Cambodia’s National Assembly, will head a Parliamentary delegation to Hanoi for talks over the weekend in an attempt to placate Vietnamese anger over Cambodia’s apparent siding with China on the issue.
This comes amid a separate peace mission by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa who has taken on the role of mediator and already held talks with The Philippines and Vietnam.
China claims sovereignty over most of the resource-rich sea, including the Spratly and Paracel islands, home to vital shipping lanes. ASEAN members The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims that overlap and are promoting a unified ASEAN approach to negotiating with China.
That difference has caused a nasty split within ASEAN over how best to deal with Beijing and thwarted ASEAN from issuing the customary joint statement, a first in diplomatic bungles in its 45-year history.
The statement itself is normally unremarkable but what did incense members was Cambodia’s close relationship with China and Phnom Penh’s apparent use of the chair to do Beijing’s bidding despite the wishes of fellow ASEAN members.
In particular, Cambodia refused to cater for Manila’s demands that any statement concerning disputes in the South China Sea must mention its standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal.
Cambodia has accepted more than US$10 billion in foreign aid, soft loans and investments from China over the last 18 years, which Prime Minister Hun Sen insists came with no strings attached.
Nobody was convinced of that argument and the ire directed at Cambodia, like its inability to produce a joint statement, was unprecedented.
This perhaps gave other issues a nudge in the right direction.
In the same week Cambodia announced its troops have finally been pulled out of the demilitarized zone around the 11th century temples of Preah Vihear where they had fought a four-year border skirmish with Thailand. Thai soldiers were also redeployed.
Phnom Penh also said Patrick Devillers – a French architect wanted for questioning in China over the massive Bo Xilai corruption scandal — had left for Shanghai of his own accord.
Both issues had generated much heat for the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong who will be happy to see the back of Devillers and the Thai soldiers. But whether the same will be said for Cambodia, its relationship with China and disputes in the South China Sea is doubtful.