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Officials eye South China Sea spat

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Protesters march with banners and placards during an anti-China demonstration in Hanoi on Sunday after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into a disputed area of the South China Sea.

Government officials have sounded a note of caution amid escalating tensions between Vietnam and China, competing patrons of the Kingdom who are engaged in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

In rare public demonstrations over the past few weeks, hundreds of Vietnamese have taken to the streets in protest of what they say are violations of Vietnamese sovereignty by China in an area that is home to a number of the world’s key shipping lanes and is thought to hold significant deposits of oil and natural gas.

Vietnam has called for international intervention in the dispute, a move vigorously opposed by China. The Vietnamese navy has begun conducting live-fire military exercises off its central coast, and Hanoi has accused China of twice harassing its survey ships in the South China Sea in recent weeks; China, in turn, has accused Vietnam of “gravely violating” its sovereignty in the area.

Cambodia foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong declined to take sides in the dispute, saying only that Cambodia hopes to see the issue settled according to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was signed by China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a 2002 ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh.

“Cambodia hopes that the dispute will be resolved peacefully,” Koy Kuong said.

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party has repeatedly inveighed against alleged encroachment by Vietnam on Cambodian territory in recent years, and in a statement on Friday, the SRP threw its support behind Beijing.

“We have been denouncing and condemning Vietnam’s arrogance and groundless claims to territories belonging to neighbouring countries,” the SRP said.

“The continuous violation of Cambodia’s territorial integrity by expansionist Vietnam and the bellicose position Hanoi is adopting in Southeast Asia and in the South China Sea constitute a serious threat to peace and stability in the region.”

Ruling party lawmaker Cheam Yeap said yesterday that China was  “a close friend” of Cambodia, and that Vietnam was “even closer”. He accused the SRP of lacking a “faithful stance” in professing its support for China.

“We want our two friend countries to use the legal maps and abide by international law,” Cheam Yeap said. “If they cannot resolve the dispute and they use violence to flex their muscles, it will affect the region’s security.”

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Tea Banh left for China yesterday for a one-week, unofficial visit.

“The meetings will aim to boost cooperation in military fields between the two countries,” he said yesterday, speaking to reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport ahead of his departure. “And of course, we will learn from China.”

In addition to its massive investments in infrastructure projects in the Kingdom in recent years, Beijing has also provided significant military support.

Last year, China donated more than 250 military trucks and 50,000 military uniforms to Cambodia, donating a further 50,000 uniforms last month.

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