South China Sea Dispute Off Asean Summit Agenda

Cambodia, in its role as Asean chair, has decided that the thorny issue of the South China Sea will not be on the agenda at next month’s Asean summit in Phnom Penh, CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap announced yesterday. “Cambodia is a neutral country and based on our position to promote peace and economic development in the region, Cambodia will not put the South China Sea on the agenda,” Mr. Yeap said.

Mr. Yeap made the announcement during a conference organized by the Center for Asian Strategic Studies-India and the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace to discuss a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) to prevent conflict over the maritime territorial dispute between China and Asean members in the South China Sea.

Mr. Yeap told the conference that the decision not to include the South China Sea in the April 3 – 4 summit does not represent a lack of commitment by Cambodia.

“This does not mean that the Prime Minister [Hun Sen] is neglecting the situation. We are also working hard to push forward on the Code of Conduct,” Mr. Yeap said.

International panel participants at yesterday’s conference had varying reactions to Mr. Yeap’s announcement.

Vo Xuan Vinh, a Vietnamese researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Vietnam, said that Cambodia could not call itself a neutral observer of the South China Sea dispute.

“I know that Cambodia does not have direct interests there but [it] has indirect interests. I think the South China Sea should be an issue in the agenda of the Asean summit – it is very important,” Mr. Xuan Vinh said.

Kuik Cheng-Chwee, an associate professor from the National University of Malaysia’s Strategic Studies and International Relations Program, said he found Mr. Yeap’s announcement unsurprising.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Mr. Kuik cited the example of the US-Asean summit held in September 2010, where the US had wanted to put the South China Sea maritime dispute on its agenda, but was discouraged by some of the Asean nations, including Cambodia and Malaysia, because it was too sensitive.

“Everybody knows Cambodia and China has a close relationship…. Some of us, we don’t want to overplay the issue because it would be very provocative,” said Mr. Kuik.

“If we push the issue, it would be difficult for China to make a compromise, and it would be counterproductive.”

The resource-rich South China Sea has ignited a new round of flared tensions over territorial claims among China and the other countries that ring the waters, most notably Vietnam and the Philippines.

At the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh in 2002, Asean member states and China enacted the non-legally binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

Recent moves to create the Code of Conduct came after the DOC had proven unsuccessful in preventing maritime disputes between China and other claimant states.

Speaking after the conference, Mr. Yeap denied that the large amount of aid and investment coming from China could influence Cambodia in its decision not to address the issue.

“We can push it, but we cannot take the issue to solve [under Cambodia’s chairmanship],” Mr. Yeap said.

“We are not concerned about China being angry with us…. We just have to find a neutral way to solve this case,” he said.

Nong Hong, Deputy Director of the Research Center for Ocean Laws and Policy at the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies – a think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that it was Cambodia’s decision to leave the sea dispute off the agenda of the summit.

“Cambodia is the chairman of Asean for this year – they should have their own agenda for the Asean community to discuss,” she said. “Maybe they have other more important issues.”

“China always respects Asean’s decision no matter what the issues are,” she added.

Speaking on an early panel at yesterday’s conference Puy Kea, a well-known local journalist, said it is still yet to be seen if Cambodia will be able to keep the South China Sea issue off the agenda.

“Some may fear that Cambodia will not mediate properly, given the fact it owes much to China for all the assistance flowing from Beijing to Phnom Penh,” Mr. Kea said.

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