In its role as Asean chair, Cambodia appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The US hopes that Cambodia will aide in easing tensions between Southeast Asian countries and China over disputed waters in the resource-rich South China Sea. China, on the other hand, is making attempts to pull Cambodia closer to its line of thinking, which is to settle the South China Sea issue on a country-by-country basis.
In a meeting with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Friday, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell expressed his desire that Cambodia use its recently acquired political weight as Asean chair to smooth the uncertainty between China, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, who all claim part of the sea.
“The US welcomes Cambodia for playing a mediator role in the issue over the South China Sea; that will be of interest to all parties and resolve the conflict,” Mr. Campbell said during the meeting with Mr. Namhong.
Mr. Namhong then set off for China this week to meet with Jia Qinglin, one of China’s top political advisors, where praise was lavished on Cambodia for its support on a myriad of interests considered strategic to China.
During their meeting on Monday, Mr. Jia spoke of a strategic partnership and how “China is ready to join with Asean countries, including Cambodia, to continue to contribute to the region’s peace, stability and prosperity,” according to the official Xinhua news service.
“Jia said China appreciates Cambodia’s firm adherence to the one-China policy and steady support for China on issues involving Tibet, Xinjiang and other major issues,” Xinhua said. It is not know if the South China Sea dispute is one of those “major issues” that Jia was referring to.
Indeed, the divergent interests of the US and China in the region seem clear. In November China announced it was increasing its military presence in the sea, while the US has said that it too will boost its military presence in the region.
On Sunday, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that Cambodia does not take a side in the South China Sea issue, but would try to help the countries find a diplomatic solution.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said it is in Cambodia’s best interest to remain neutral.
“Geopolitics and containment of China has been very important to the US in the past year,” he said, “but Cambodia should remain neutral—as it has so far—because any tension with China would be harmful.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)