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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - South China Sea fears laid at US’s door

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) shakes hands with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, before their meeting at the State Department in Washington last month. YURI GRIPAS/AFP
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) shakes hands with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, before their meeting at the State Department in Washington last month. Yuri Gripas/AFP

South China Sea fears laid at US’s door

Addressing a workshop organised by the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhon on Friday said he believes the South China Sea will remain a “hot issue” due to US involvement in the region.

“Even though there are some positive signs, and progress was made by ASEAN and China to establish mechanisms for improving safety and trust, I still foresee the possibility of new challenges,” Sokhon said.

Controversial statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Senate confirmation hearing in January could lead to conflict in the region, Sokhon noted.

The former CEO of Exxon pledged to ban China from occupying the artificial islands it constructed in the South China Sea, causing some to ponder whether a new US-China conflict would soon erupt.

Sokhon also pointed a finger at US President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal, which calls for a $54 billion increase in defence spending, suggesting that any attempt to funnel extra funds to the US military would fuel unrest.

But the criticisms come at a time when the situation in the South China Sea is relatively calm, and to date, no concrete actions have matched Tillerson’s rhetoric.

“There were some early signs that there might be a hardening of policy, and that came through the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments,” said Greg Raymond, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

“Now there has since been no follow up to that statement, and it doesn’t look like it will actually become US policy.”

In the 51 days since Trump took office, the US has continued sending military aircrafts and vessels to assert freedom of navigation rights across the sea. But that policy was begun under former President Barack Obama, Raymond noted.

Meanwhile, fears about Tillerson’s comments have been somewhat tempered by a growing consensus in Washington that he could wield considerably less influence than his post would normally dictate, with observers pointing to Trump’s failure to consult him about important policy pronouncements and his apparent sidelining from important meetings with key world leaders.

Sokhon’s comments come at a time when Cambodian officials have begun conspicuously lambasting the US, reviving contentious issues such as the US bombings during the 1970s and Cambodia’s unpaid war era debt.

Cambodia has consistently backed China in its disputes with neighbours in the South China Sea, blocking ASEAN from issuing statements against Beijing.

Following the most recent ASEAN meeting in the Philippines, Sokhon highlighted China’s important role as a strategic partner, and called for continued work on an ASEAN code of conduct for the South China Sea.

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