Two years after the fight over the South China Sea reared its head at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace, the issue resurfaced at the same venue yesterday.
Prime Minister Hun Sen held a private meeting with Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, about the status of the dispute, following China’s controversial decision to put a government-owned drilling rig in contested waters last month.
Kao Kim Hourn, a spokesman for the prime minister, told reporters the premier had talked about the importance of ASEAN and of China, a country he described as a “comprehensive strategic partner” to the regional bloc.
Hun Sen also discussed the declaration of conduct (DOC) for countries involved in the South China Sea dispute, Kim Hourn said, the nature of which divided ASEAN during the 2012 summit, leading to accusations Cambodia was siding with China rather than its ASEAN co-members.
“[Hun Sen reaffirmed] . . . what ASEAN has stated previously, [that] the problems in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully – this is the stance [of Cambodia],” Kim Hourn said.
Relations between Vietnam and China have been tense since the drilling rig was installed, leading to riots in Vietnam and an exodus of Chinese nationals, many of whom fled to Cambodia.
In a statement in Cambodian state media on Tuesday, Hul Phany, Cambodia’s ambassador to Vietnam, was quoted sa saying that the Kingdom “wants to see Vietnam and China resolve the sea border and island conflicts peacefully without resorting to violence”.
Koy Kuong, spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Post last week that Cambodia’s position on the sea dispute – which also involves other ASEAN states and Taiwan – remained neutral.
“We don’t want to take sides with Vietnam or China,” he said. “The most important thing is that all parties respect the DOC and continue talking peacefully.”
Since December, China has given the Kingdom upwards of $2.89 billion in grants, interest-free loans and loans to support hydropower projects, roads and other development plans.
Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, believes explicit public support for one side over the other is unlikely any time soon.
“The government of Hun Sen will not side with Vietnam over the South China Sea dispute, as it would damage bilateral relations with China, and that would almost certainly lead to a reduction in Chinese economic aid to Cambodia.”