Cambodia’s South China Sea Dilemma Between China and ASEAN
Photo Credit: The New York Times
By Sovinda Po and Veasna Var

Cambodia’s South China Sea Dilemma Between China and ASEAN

May. 03, 2017  |     |  0 comments

The South China Sea has become a flashpoint for conflict between China and some of its ASEAN neighbors, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. China’s recent construction of facilities on man-made islands as well as the deployment of weapons including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems have raised tensions and risked the militarization of competing claims by other states. The diplomatic impasse between China and the ASEAN claimant states, as well as within ASEAN has, furthermore made the situation less predictable.

Despite the limited nature of the claims, the South China Sea dispute has much broader implications for maritime security, peace, stability, and security in the region. The US claims considerable national interests to be at stake in the South China Sea, particularly with regards to freedom of navigation as well as respect for international law, despite it not being a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The US is also asserting its role as protector of its ASEAN partners and allies. The issue of freedom of navigation remains contentious between the US and China over the right of vessels to operate unchallenged in the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by China. This was evident during a regional meeting in Kuala Lumpur in August 2015 when US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that the US will not accept any restrictions on freedom of navigation or overflight in the disputed South China Sea.

The issues are complex because these maritime disputes are related to competition for natural resources, sovereignty, nationalism, historical legacies, and geopolitics. Issues of sovereignty prove difficult to solve because each party is highly unlikely to give up any of its claims in the face of a possible domestic backlash. These disputes present a serious threat to regional stability as the parties, China in particular, are increasingly bellicose. As a result of the longstanding dispute, the South China Sea has been described as “troubled waters” or a flash point. As Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute put it, “the South China Sea is definitely a flashpoint because it is the area where we might find US aircraft and warships actually clashing with Chinese aircraft and warships and the possibility of an unintended shoot down of an aircraft or sinking of a ship I think is quite high.”

It has been argued that, since 2012, the South China Sea has re-emerged as the most significant and challenging foreign policy dilemma for Cambodia. As a non-claimant state, the South China Sea is not of direct concern for Cambodia. However, it holds great relevance to Cambodia as a member of ASEAN. While ASEAN has been always a cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy, the country has been accused of siding with China at the expense of ASEAN, and hence damaging the unity of ASEAN. This accusation is primarily based on the fact that China has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and economic benefactor, and is also the biggest military assistance provider to Cambodia. Thus, some analysts and commentators have portrayed Cambodia as a Chinese “client state.” Some Cambodian political analysts have concluded that, among the strategic challenges facing Cambodia, balancing between ASEAN and China on the contentious issue of the South China Sea is and will continue to be the most significant strategic challenge for Cambodia’s foreign policy in the 21st century.

China’s Influence over Cambodia: A Divided ASEAN?

The level of Chinese influence was evident when Cambodia held the ASEAN Chairmanship for the second time in 2012. Cambodia is seen as strongly supporting China’s “core interests” on the South China Sea disputes. This resulted in ASEAN’s failure to produce a Joint Communiqué following its 45th Annual Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. It was the first time in the history of ASEAN there was no communiqué as Cambodia had arguably refused to play the customary role of seeking agreement among the ten ASEAN members. A number of ASEAN members pointed the finger at Cambodia for rejecting a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam that mentioned their territorial disputes with China in the unified statement. As a result, Cambodia was criticized by its closest ally — Vietnam, other ASEAN members, and the international community for lacking an independent foreign policy. The failure would disgrace Prime Minister Hun Sen’s commitment to play a neutral leadership role in setting regional related issues, and his pledge that “Cambodia would fulfil its leadership role responsibly and would work to neutrally moderate and mediate all regional and international issues.”

Cambodia, however, insists the failure to issue the communiqué was caused not by intransigence or any lack of effort on its part to find common ground among all the parties concerned. The Cambodian government claimed that “Cambodia has, again and again, become a victim of the South China Sea issue because of unjust accusations.” PM Hun Sen asserted that the failure of the bloc to issue a joint communiqué — known as the “Phnom Penh Fiasco,” was not due to Cambodia but instead due to the claimant states, referring to pressure from the Philippines and Vietnam to incorporate their strong wording in the joint communiqué. He also blamed some ASEAN claimant states for “trying to drag Cambodia into the dispute,” stating that “they have a dispute, but they get Cambodia to be responsible.”

Similarly, the kingdom faced another round of significant challenges at the 49th ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos in September 2016 when Cambodia was once again portrayed as a “thorn” inside the regional bloc, and there was more tension over issuing a joint communiqué on the South China Sea disputes. While other ASEAN members are leaning toward China, only Cambodia has been put in the spotlight. Cambodia again was accused of refusing to include any mention of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in the document. Although the joint communiqué could be issued with unity, Cambodia was seen as responsible for preventing ASEAN from issuing a common position to confront China. Therefore, some analysts argued that Cambodia’s siding with China at the expense of ASEAN leading the South China Sea dispute diminished ASEAN unity. Some critics criticized Cambodia for damaging ASEAN unity by arguing that “Cambodia is not even a claimant, so its wielding of a veto in the consensus-based bloc on behalf of a non-member patron country can be seen as fundamentally undermining ASEAN’s founding principle of strict non-interference in its member-countries’ affairs.”

The issues of South China Sea and ASEAN unity have become a point of diplomatic friction between Cambodia and some other ASEAN states, in particular the claimant states of Vietnam and the Philippines. Cambodia’s foreign policy of leaning toward China at the expense of ASEAN’s unity have led to some observers and commentators sensationally painting Cambodia in a negative manner, with headlines such as “Cambodia is killing the ASEAN dream,” “Cambodia is unbelievable,” “Cambodia is ASEAN’s maverick,” “Cambodia is weakest link of ASEAN unity,” etc. One ASEAN diplomat bluntly described Cambodia’s rejection of any mention of China in the section on the South China Sea this way: “Cambodia is unbelievable. It is blocking any phrase about the [Hague] arbitration and about [China’s] ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea.” The effect of these developments on ASEAN credibility cannot be understated. Similarly, another diplomat, from Indonesia, made this clear that “Our house is in a mess. We don’t want ASEAN to be like Europe. We want to save ASEAN and be unified again.”

Despite there being no existing provision in the ASEAN Charter concerning the dismissal or withdrawal of a member state, some observers even have gone further and suggested dismissing Cambodia from the regional grouping so that ASEAN can move forward on the South China Sea. For example, written in a comment on his Facebook page, Singaporean ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan proposed Cambodia’s expulsion from ASEAN. This has led to strong reactions from some observers and commentators and the Cambodian side. In countering the controversial comment, a Cambodian scholar fiercely argued that:

“Expelling Cambodia is a ridiculous idea. The ASEAN Charter does not mention any criteria on admitting new members and expelling members. It was not the intention of the drafters of the Charter to turn ASEAN to be a supranational body and to allow some members to impose their will on others. If Cambodia is out, ASEAN’s days will be definitely numbered as Laos and Myanmar will be on increasingly hot ASEAN seats. They will eventually have to exit too when they find that toothless ASEAN cannot meet their security and economic needs. So will Laos and Myanmar or even Vietnam join a front to expel Cambodia knowing that they would be next targets? … Consensus has been the backbone of ASEAN unity. Given Southeast Asian diversity, politically, economically and culturally, any suggestion on the abandonment of consensus is both disastrous and unpractical. If it happens, it would disintegrate ASEAN in the near future. However, it’s unpractical in the first place. Countries like Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and even Singapore and Brunei, will definitely back down on the initiative because they harbor a legitimate concern that other ASEAN members would use ASEAN to their advantage or in a worst-case scenario to interfere into their domestic affairs.”

Some critics argue that as Cambodia is under China’s enormous political and economic influence, it has no choice but to side with China over the South China Sea disputes.

As for the government’s response, Cambodia’s foreign minister reaffirmed the Cambodian position that “Cambodia maintained its rightful stance that it would side with any party” and that Cambodia has contributed considerably to prevent the situation in the South China Sea “from falling into deteriorated at atmosphere via the facilitation of all relevance parties.” He also accused the Philippines of having agreed to not include a phrase in the joint statement.

Before the meeting in Laos, PM Hun Sen expressed his objection regarding the verdict by the PCA by stating that Cambodia “will not make any joint declaration to support the decision of the court.” The Cambodian government’s argument was that the Philippine government had unilaterally brought the South China Sea case to the PCA which is seen as having serious implications on internal ASEAN and ASEAN-China relation. PM Hun Sen argued that “it is the Philippines who sues China. Let the Philippines deal with it, why call for ASEAN support.” The kingdom has urged major powers, referring to the US, to refrain from “pouring oil into the flame and try to keep détente in relations on the South China Sea.”1

Cambodia claims instead that the country has played a mediating role between China and ASEAN, leaving both sides happy. As quoted by the media, a Cambodian government official stated: ‘They should understand and be thankful to Cambodia that, because of Cambodia’s role and position, (they are) making China happy with ASEAN by offering new and fresh pledges with four positive points, including a particular commitment to conclude the Code of Conduct framework by middle of next year.” The official affirmed that Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea issue is merely to secure the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that was signed in Cambodia in 2002, and that Cambodia never wants to see such historical commitment be “destroyed” or “scrapped.”

The official and political position of the Cambodian government on the South China Sea is aimed at (1) continuing implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC); (2) urging ASEAN and China to make utmost effort to finalize the code of conduct (COC); (3) encourage the claimant states and China to resolve their issue peacefully, not between ASEAN and China. Clearly, Cambodia has consistently maintained this stance since its first ASEAN chairmanship in 2002. However, this stance has been interpreted as favoring China’s side which some critics claim would give China substantially more advantage and leverage over its much smaller neighbors at the negotiation table.

Some critics argue that as Cambodia is under China’s enormous political and economic influence, it has no choice but to side with China over the South China Sea disputes. This became apparent when China announced a further USD 600 million aid package to Cambodia almost immediately after the PCA verdict. Moreover, a week after the meeting in Laos, China continued its powerful economic diplomacy by expressing a commitment to financing a Cambodian request for a 12-story office building for the Country’s National Assembly.

Cambodia’s Interest in ASEAN

Since becoming a full member of ASEAN on April 30, 1999, Cambodia attached great importance to integrating the country into the regional and international grouping. There are four main strategic reasons that motivated Cambodia to seek to join ASEAN. First, it was driven by the expectation that joining ASEAN — which upholds the principle of non-interference — would help Cambodia which is wedged between two major countries, Vietnam in the east and Thailand in the west, to address its external security challenges and to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a small country sandwiched between these two dominating neighbors, territorial and national sovereignty have been enduring concerns which Cambodia regards as its first national security priority. According to Vannarith Chheang, “ASEAN helps Cambodia protect its sovereignty and independence against its two big neighbors [Vietnam and Thailand], which are historically perceived as a core traditional threat to the country.”

The second interest for Cambodia to be in the ASEAN family is related to the consensus-based principle of ASEAN. This approach can be understood that whether a country is rich or poor, big or small, every member has an equal voice. This principle is seen as aligning with Cambodia’s contemporary Constitution which was promulgated as a result of the Paris Peace Agreement (PPA) of 1991. The PPA brought new hope to the Cambodian people following almost forty years of suffering. A democratically elected government was established following UN-supported elections in 1993. The Cambodian constitution was also promulgated which clearly articulated Cambodia’s aspiration to become an independent, neutral, and liberal democratic state. According to the Constitution, “Cambodia shall be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.” This principle is a seen as a backbone of Cambodian foreign policy. Some critics suggest that to be able to achieve this principle to best serve its national development interests, Cambodia needs to improve regional cooperation and strong institutions.

The third rationale for joining ASEAN is driven by the interest of the country’s economic development. Cambodia expected that it would benefit from ASEAN’s socio-economic development and connectivity. ASEAN’s principles also align with Cambodia’s “Rectangular Strategy” which spells out the importance and necessity of integrating Cambodia into the international community. Through the adoption of the “Rectangular Strategy,” the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has moved toward democratization and international cooperation. The aim of this strategy is to build Cambodian society by strengthening peace, stability and social order, promoting sustainable and equitable development, entrenching democracy and respect for human rights and dignity, and integrating Cambodia into the regional and international communities. To achieve its goal, the RGC has embarked upon reform in many fields of government, including legal and judicial reforms, military reforms, and administrative reforms. PM Hun Sen has reiterated the vital importance of reform by stating that “reform is a matter of life and death for Cambodia.”2

The legacy of more than three decades of civil war, especially during the Pol Pot era, has created significant challenges for Cambodia’s development. This challenge has demonstrated that it would not be possible for Cambodia to develop without international support. Therefore, the final strategic interest of Cambodia to seek ASEAN membership is that through ASEAN as a platform, Cambodia would be able to reach out to other partners regionally and globally. For example, through the ASEAN platform, Cambodia has cultivated its strategic relations with strategic and important ASEAN dialogue partners including but not limited to Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the two giants — China and the US.

Since becoming a full member of ASEAN, Cambodia has accelerated the speed of trade liberalization and the free flow of goods and services both within the country and between Cambodia and other key partners in the region and the rest of the world. As Cambodian scholar Vannarith Chheang puts it, “ASEAN provides a strategic and diplomatic space for Cambodia to effectively engage with other countries and regions, develop the economy through regional cooperation and strengthen Cambodian cultural identity.” He maintains that “The future of ASEAN and that of Cambodia is intertwined. Cambodia will not be able to realize its vision to become a high-income country without a strong and relevant ASEAN.”

PM Hun Sen’s keynote address at the 36 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting under the theme “Towards an ASEAN Economic Community — Integrated and Outward-Looking,” in Phnom Penh in 2003 clearly stressed the importance of the country’s commitment to the principle of democracy: “Cambodia is very proud of being able to specifically and appropriately contribute to regional efforts toward firm security and peace since the first days of its membership. Cambodia’s strict adherence to the principles of democracy, respect for and protection of human rights, ensuring peace and genuine national reconciliation, the elimination of the Khmer Rouge political and military structure have been significant and meaningful gifts for ASEAN solidarity.”

Outlining the government’s political agenda over the next four year in July 2004, PM Hun Sen stated that the participation of Cambodia in the ASEAN Free Trade Area is a strategic and historical step in the rehabilitation and development of Cambodia. The Prime Minister added that the RGC “will continue to push for the integration of Cambodia into the region and the world, especially focusing on bridging the development gap among the member-countries of the ASEAN.”

Cambodia’s Interest in China

PM Hun Sen stated during the official visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2006 that China is a “most trusted friend” to Cambodia. He convinced his ASEAN counterparts to view China’s rapid economic growth as an opportunity rather than a threat. Likewise, China asserted that it sees Cambodia “as a faithful brother and friend” and that “China will still continue supporting Cambodia for social and economic development and poverty reduction.” During the mourning of the death of late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, Premier Wen stated that the loss of King-Father Sihanouk was not just a great loss for the Cambodian people but also a great lost to the Chinese people because the King had always forged fruitful relations between the two countries.

Cambodia has supported China’s one-China principle since the Norodom Sihanouk era and has continued this support until today. This was evident in 1997, when Cambodia closed the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office even though Taiwan’s business had significantly contributed to Cambodia’s economic development. Earlier this year, seemingly to demonstrate Cambodia’s strictest adherence to the one-China policy, PM Hun Sen announced the banning of the Taiwanese flag from being raised in Cambodia at any gathering or event, arguing that Taiwan was considered an independently-governed Chinese province. However, the Phnom Penh government still welcomes investment from Taiwanese businessmen. As quoted by the Cambodia Daily, PM Hun Sen stated: “We should not do anything that affects the respect of China’s sovereignty and independence through shaking hands and stepping on feet. I cannot do it … We need to respect the sovereignty of China, which places the same value on respecting Cambodia’s sovereignty too.” During his visit in 2011, the Vice-Chairman of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) asserted that “Cambodia fully supports one-China policy and our support will be never changed.”

China has provided a considerable amount of military assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ professional and capability development.

Clearly, as with other ASEAN nations, Chinese aid and investment have provided important benefits for Cambodia’s economic development. Chinese development aid in infrastructure has played an important role in Cambodia’s national rehabilitation. China’s involvement in Cambodia has contributed to the development of the garment and textile sectors which have more than 3,000 companies, and which are the backbone of Cambodian exports, accounting for 80 percent of all exports and employing about half a million workers, and which have contributed 2 percent of Cambodia’s GDP since 1995. About one-fourth of the population relies on the garment and textile industries for their economic prosperity.

Currently China is the biggest foreign investor in Cambodia and is also the leading aid donor. Since 1992, China has provided Cambodia considerable development aid. As of February 2017, China disbursed Cambodia around USD 4.2 billion of aid in both grants and soft loans to fund physical infrastructure, agriculture, education, and social development. Bilateral trade between the two countries has increased dramatically from year to year: while bilateral trade in 2014 was about USD 3.75 billion, in 2016 trade increased to around USD 4.8 billion, with exports from Cambodia accounting for USD 830 million and imports from China USD 3.9 billion. According to the Ministry of Commerce, bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to reach at USD 5.01 billion this year. China has also become the largest investor in Cambodia with more than USD 10 billion in cumulative investments. The main fields of China’s investment in Cambodia include agriculture, infrastructure, garments, and mining. Moreover, under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic development initiative called the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which he put forward in 2013, Cambodia would be expected to gain enormous economic benefits in infrastructure development — ports, roads and railways that connect Cambodia to the region.

To date, China has assisted Cambodia with the construction of 7 bridges (some of them named “Cambodia-China friendship bridges”), and 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) of roads, including the ASEAN highway and trans-ASEAN rail line. These have significantly improved access to markets, especially for farmers. Both the Cambodian and Chinese governments recognize the importance of Chinese aid for infrastructure development, with the Chinese government claiming that “its aid to Cambodia is an effort to boost progress in a nation that ranks among the world’s least developed, where gross domestic product per capita stands at about 830 USD — one of Asia’s lowest — and some 30% of its 15 million people live below the poverty line.” According to Chinese officials, Chinese aid to Cambodia has not only benefited Cambodia’s economic development, but has also helped Cambodia close its disparity gap with ASEAN, and contributed to the successful ASEAN economic integration process. Cambodia has welcomed Chinese support in infrastructure development in hydropower, as the interests of the US, World Bank, and other donors have focused more on democracy and human rights.

China’s investment in hydropower plants also helped the Cambodian government achieve its economic development goals, by providing cheap and reliable electricity for industrial zones and rural areas. For example, the Chinese backed Kamchay Dam at Elephant Mountain which has been in operation since early 2016 has generated 1.68 billion kilowatt-hours. This power has been transmitted to Kompot and Takeo provinces as well as Phnom Penh.

Currently only 20 percent of Cambodian households have access to electricity, as the price is high. However, the government expects to increase household access to 70 percent by 2030 with the development of Chinese hydropower dams. For now, Cambodia purchases electricity from Vietnam and Thailand, and the government expects to be able to sell electricity back to these countries as a result of these projects.3

In addition to development aid, China’s defense cooperation with Cambodia has also tightened markedly since the 1990s. The current strategic competition for influence between the two superpowers and the ongoing tensions between China and the ASEAN claimant states over the South China Sea have pushed Cambodia ever closer to the Chinese sphere of influence. Currently, China has emerged as Cambodia’s most significant military partner. The country’s recent decision to postpone military exercises with the US and Australia has been understood as Cambodia playing China against the US. It is clear the US has become unable to compete with China for influence in Cambodia. China has provided a considerable amount of military assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ (RCAF) professional and capability development. In recent years, China has significantly increased its military cooperation with the RCAF by providing loans and military equipment, including trucks, helicopters, and aircraft; constructed military training and medical facilities; and donated uniforms to the RCAF.

In 2003, Cambodia and China signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) on defense cooperation, focusing the upgrade of a military airfield in Kompong Chnang province, and the construction of barracks and officers’ quarters.4 In May 2012, the Chinese and Cambodian defense ministers signed a defense cooperation agreement valued at 17 million USD for training Cambodian military personnel in China. China also provided military equipment, materials, military instructors, and Chinese language teachers.5

China has since provided Cambodia with USD 60 million in soft loans to buy nine patrol boats and financed Cambodia’s upgraded naval base in Ream. China also lent Cambodia USD 195 million to purchase Chinese-made Zhishengji-9 twin-engine light utility helicopters, and provided training for 25 pilots and mechanics.6 Beijing has also actively engaged in military exercises with the kingdom’s military, for example a naval exercise in late February 2016, and an army exercise codenamed “Dragon Gold” in mid-December 2016. These military exercises were seen as signaling the closest ties between the two militaries since the Khmer Rouge was in power. Clearly, as the RCAF is now committed to a long-term process of reform and force structure review, the strong defense ties between Beijing and Phnom Penh have considerably contributed to the strengthening of the Cambodian national defense sector.

The Way Forward

It seems that the Cambodian government has a strategic dilemma in weighing the trade-off between ASEAN, a cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy, and China, Cambodia’s most important development partner. Cambodia needs ASEAN because the country’s best long-term interests lie in regional initiatives like ASEAN; Mekong regional development; and working to harmonize foreign relations as far as possible with countries in the region and the world. ASEAN is the best platform for Cambodia’s outreach to the world to reap political, security, and development benefits as it aligns with the Cambodian policy agenda for development. It has been argued that ASEAN provides a roadmap for advancing and protecting Cambodia’s international interests and defines how the country engage with the world in the years ahead. But Cambodia also needs China because the giant has been the strongest supporter for developing Cambodian infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and public buildings, with less complicated conditions responding to Cambodia’s development needs. While this is a tough choice for Cambodia, it does not mean that Cambodia will have to make a strategic binary choice between ASEAN and China.

The integration of Cambodia in sub-regional, regional, and global cooperation has significantly enhanced the prestige of the Kingdom of Cambodia in the international arena and created an enabling environment for the mobilization of external development assistance to Cambodia. Cambodia’s capacity to address its main challenge of achieving its poverty reduction target — upper-middle income country status by 2030 and high income status by 2050 — would be unlikely to become a reality without foreign assistance from diverse aid providers and integration into the international community. The South China Sea issue between China and ASEAN’s claimant states is unlikely to end anytime soon. Therefore, it would be a great opportunity for Cambodia’s long-term national interests if the country could be able to balance between the two. A collaborative approach between China and ASEAN would deliver the best outcome for Cambodia. Although Cambodia has close relations with China, as part of ASEAN it is important for the country to move towards increased major power engagement in the region and strengthening of relations with other countries in order to secure its own future.

For regional cooperation, as for China and ASEAN, the latter has made great efforts to manage the dispute multilaterally through dialogue and consultation with China. However, ASEAN has not yet been successful in playing a mediating role because of a lack of consensus among its member states on how to address sovereignty disputes. It is undeniable that not only Cambodia but each ASEAN state has its own views and national interests, and these have prevailed. The problem is the practical reality that all disputants have: a considerable economic dependency on China which is ASEAN’s largest trading partner and consequently, economic considerations can be understood to influence the thinking of each member to varying degrees. The majority of states are also anxious of the possible impact that taking a strong stance against China could have on their bilateral diplomatic relations.

All ASEAN states have backed the Chinese establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As a result, it is unlikely that ASEAN itself could form a consensus on confronting China’s strategic interest in the region. Consequently, this issue will have significant impacts on ASEAN’s aspirations for an integrated ASEAN Economic Community. Therefore, it would not wise to completely put the blame on Cambodia. Clearly, the South China Sea is not an issue between China and ASEAN; the dispute is only between the ASEAN claimant states and China. Instead of pointing the figure at Cambodia, as argued by Sukmawani Bela Pertiwi, it would be better for ASEAN to focus on bringing all members closer through its integration initiative so that in the future each ASEAN member would prefer to side with fellow ASEAN states rather than outside powers for pragmatic reasons.” He reminds ASEAN member states that ASEAN “should not fall into China’s game,” arguing that “this [issue] could be exploited by China to prolong the dispute and prevent any solution.” As he explains: “Given the weakness of China’s claim, China gets an advantage from the status quo and lack of resolution of the dispute.” As Cambodian scholar Vannarith Chheang rightly points out, “If the regional and external countries keep pressuring the non-claimant states like Cambodia to build a united front against China, ASEAN will be disintegrated.”7

Therefore, Cambodia and other members need to find new ways to pursue a more inclusive approach and stand united on the South China Sea dispute with China in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner, or it will face increasing criticism from the international community. Options that remains open for ASEAN include ongoing consultations with China through the actualization of a binding code of conduct. However, this option will be complicated since China considers the dispute in the South China Sea to not be a matter between China and ASEAN but a bilateral issue between China and each concerned country. However, it seems there are no better choices for ASEAN but to pursue political negotiations with China which can be seen as aligning with the ASEAN principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes.


1. Cheunboran Chanborey. (2016, September 5). The South China Sea and ASEAN unity: A Cambodian uerspective. Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.

2.  The Royal Government of Cambodia, Office of the Council of Ministers. (2008, September 26). Address by Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia on “Rectangular Strategy” for Growth, Employment, Equity and Efficiency Phase II First Cabinet Meeting of the Fourth Legislature of the National Assembly at the Office of the Council of Ministers, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Retrieved from http://www.cdc

3. Kheang Un. (2013). Cambodia in 2012: Beyond the crossroads? Asian Survey, 53(1).

4. Carlyle A. Thayer. (2013, February 19). The tug of war over Cambodia. USNI New. Retrieved from

5. John D. Ciorciari. (2013, June 14). China and Cambodia: Patron and client? International Policy Center, Working Paper no. 121.

6. Ibid.

7. Hun Sen: Enough on South China Sea. (2016, June 29). Khmer Times. Retrieved from

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