20TH ASEAN SUMMIT IN CAMBODIA Can Cambodia be a Neutral Mediator?
20TH ASEAN SUMMIT IN CAMBODIA
Can Cambodia be a Neutral Mediator?
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Four days before Phnom Penh played host to the 20th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Chinese president Hu Jiantao undertook an official state visit to Cambodia.
Maybe. More so if one considers the fact that the last time a Chinese head of state visited the kingdom was 12 years ago.
An example of China’s growing assertiveness in the region?
This may well be the view held by some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) particularly Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei that all have claims to the South China Sea, with the first two countries mentioned having experienced firsthand the “bullying tactics” of fellow claimant China.
For these countries that have come close to experiencing a run-in with the military might that is China, the timing is simply suspect.
Just goes to show that when its territorial integrity is at stake, China surely does not hesitate to flex its military muscle.
Indeed, as Beijing becomes even stronger economically, even more influential politically, it becomes quite open about her ambitions for greater military power.
Now, in the case of Cambodia, China only has to emphasize Beijing’s economic importance to a long-time ally.
The current Chinese Ambassador to Phnom Penh said it best when he depicted China as one of the most important countries for Cambodia in terms of political relations, aid, trade and investment.
The Chinese envoy noted that bilateral trade had jumped more than tenfold from $224 million in 2000 to $2.5 billion in 2011 and that China had also contributed $2.1 billion in aid to Cambodia since 1992.
Cambodia’s national budget for this year, meanwhile, includes plans to request $767 million in loans from China.
Chinese aid to Cambodia has been channeled towards roadworks stretching 1,800 kilometers and six big hydropower projects. Another four hydropower projects are underway.
In addition, China is helping Cambodia to construct three irrigation systems, a bridge across the Mekong River and another bridge across the Tonle Sap River – next to an existing bridge built with Japanese assistance.
Chinese companies are also the largest source of foreign investment in Cambodia with investment reaching $8.8 billion between 1994 and late 2011. Such investment includes the infrastructure, hydropower, agriculture and light manufacturing sectors.
Surely, the Cambodian government won’t want to upset its biggest investor – an allegiance that last year saw China plough a whopping $8.9 billion into the country – despite saying China’s investments come with no strings attached.
Indeed, several more major contracts were signed during President Hu’s state visit last week which was aptly described as an historic event that “will deepen bilateral relations in all fields, especially in politics, economics, trade, and culture” between Beijing and Phnom Penh.
For critics, however, they simply see Cambodia’s strong ties with China, a major donor country and investor, as an impediment to the goals of other ASEAN states, especially those embroiled in disputes over maritime boundaries and islands in the South China Sea.
Political analysts express fear that the Cambodian chairmanship of the regional bloc may be perceived as “under the influence of China” which is undoubtedly a negative point for the whole of ASEAN.
Now comes the pressure being exerted by the Philippines as it urged its ASEAN counterparts on Monday to first agree among themselves on the draft text of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (COC) before meeting with China.
In a statement delivered at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, del Rosario said the Philippines is pleased to note that the ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting (ASEAN SOM) Working Group is now working to identify the main elements of the regional COC.
However, he said the country hopes that the COC will be a real “move forward” not merely in terms of form, but more importantly in substance in time for the planned ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012 – the 10th anniversary of the DoC.
The Philippines further expressed its belief that the COC must contain the following fundamental elements:
* Guidelines by which stakeholder-states are to conduct themselves in the West Philippine Sea;
* Mechanisms on dispute settlement including the appropriate structure for its effective implementation;
* Clarification and segregation of disputed from non-disputed areas in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); and
* Provisions relating to cooperative activities, as may be appropriate, for the disputed areas.
“I reiterate that the Philippines adheres to the primacy of international law in resolving the disputes,” del Rosario told his ASEAN counterparts. “We believe that a rules-based approach under the dispute settlement mechanism established in UNCLOS is the legitimate solution in addressing conflicting and overlapping claims in the West Philippine Sea.”
Still, others are taking the view that China should be invited to come in for the initial discussion.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said ASEAN should hear China’s views before presenting Beijing with a draft code.
He said it was important to “listen and we hear what China’s views are so that we can really develop a position that is cohesive and coherent.”
Some political observers now say Cambodia would improve its image in the world if it was to take a strong independent stance as head of ASEAN this year and tested its relationship with China.
It would also help its push for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council by proving it can be a neutral mediator in foreign affairs.
Cambodia may have no claim to the sea but whatever the developments reached, it will be one of those that will be affected by the dispute, one way or the other.
Perhaps now is the time for Cambodia to find its voice on the side of peace./PN