Cambodia has been treated unfairly by some Asean countries and members of the media, which have wrongly blamed the country for blocking a regional statement on a recent South China Sea verdict, Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn said yesterday.
Speaking at a news conference at the ministry’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, Mr. Sokhonn defended what he described as Cambodia’s independence and neutrality in a tense situation.
“The South China Sea situation has deteriorated, especially after the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued its decision on July 12 and made some parties yell that they were victorious and some parties yell that they denied the decision,” Mr. Sokhonn said.
Mr. Sokhonn said diplomats and the media had accused Cambodia of blocking language in an Asean statement, released Monday, that would have referenced the July verdict by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration. The court rejected Beijing’s sweeping South China Sea claims, which are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others.
The minister countered that including a reference to the tribunal verdict in a joint Asean statement would have unnecessarily antagonized China.
“If we phrased it like that, the Chinese side would absolutely reject it,” Mr. Sokhonn said. “What would happen? The situation would further deteriorate and increase the danger of the area.”
Mr. Sokhonn also suggested that the media and foreign diplomats had unfairly accused Cambodia of halting progress on the issue.
“I don’t want to talk about Asean’s internal problems, but Cambodia suffered a lot of injustice,” the minister said. “They accused us of causing obstructions because they have their own interests, but Cambodia also needs to protect our nation’s interests.”
Mr. Sokhonn also took issue with claims that the announcement of an aid package from China worth more than $500 million, which followed the tribunal verdict, had anything to do with Cambodia’s position.
“Cambodia does not profit from supporting anyone,” he said. “We just want to be neutral.”
The minister also attacked news coverage of the Asean statement.
“There is a newspaper that put as its headline ‘Cambodia Blames Philippines,’” Mr. Sokhonn said, in an apparent reference to a Thursday article in The Phnom Penh Post, “Foreign Ministry Blames Manila.” The article addressed statements made by ministry spokesman Chum Sounry that the Philippines had asked for the removal of references to the tribunal verdict.
“In fact, we do not blame [the Philippines],” he said. “We only thank the Philippines for their contribution to maintaining the solidarity and unity of Asean.”
On Tuesday, Japanese news service Kyodo cited an anonymous Cambodian diplomat in Vientiane who said other Asean members should in fact thank Cambodia for its role in “making China happy” with Asean.
Despite the minister’s remarks, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said Cambodia could not plausibly claim to be a neutral party in the ongoing debate.
“Neutrality is relative. Cambodia cannot be neutral vis-a-vis China and Asean at the same time,” he said in an email on Friday.
Mr. Pongsudhirak said the fallout from the verdict would likely impact Cambodia’s future relationships with the regional bloc.
“The Tribunal ruling and Asean’s disarray will make intra-Asean relations more tense and contentious, particularly Cambodia’s relations with other major members with South China Sea stakes, such as the Philippines and Vietnam,” he wrote.