Cambodia eagerly anticipates the opportunity to collaborate with Thailand for the renegotiation of a Joint Development Area (JDA) focused on oil and gas exploration within the 26,000sq km Overlapping Claims Area (OCA).

The area is estimated to contain significant oil and gas deposits beneath the seafloor, potentially holding up to 500 million barrels. As a looming power crisis casts a heavy shadow on the horizon, both nations are keen to secure a sustainable energy future.

Thai energy minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga said on October 30 that his government intends to shift the focus of negotiations with Cambodia towards the OCA.

The refocused approach prioritises joint development over the delimitation of territorial seas, according to Thai media.

“We require energy from the OCA, not the delimitation of territorial seas. Resolving territorial disputes is a complex and time-consuming process, as no country readily accepts alterations to its boundaries,” he was quoted as saying.

Thailand and Cambodia have asserted claims over their respective continental shelves and territorial seas at different points in time, each rooted in distinct legal frameworks.

“Both countries possess legitimate claims, making it challenging to determine right from wrong. If we cannot easily resolve this dispute, there’s little merit in further complicating matters by interlinking these two issues,” said Pirapan, also an expert in legal matters.

Cambodian Minister of Mines and Energy Keo Rottanak told the Post on November 2 that the country is open to collaborating with their Thai counterparts on the JDA, with a focus on mutual benefits for the two ASEAN neighboring nations.

“We are looking forward to working with them,” he stated.

However, he noted that the government had not received any invitations from Thai authorities as of yet.

Thai foreign minister Parnpree Bahiddha Nukara said after a visit to Phnom Penh in late September that his government needed to set up a new joint technical committee before resuming the OCA negotiation with Cambodia.

It remained unclear who would be part of the committee and whether it would fall under the jurisdiction of the foreign or energy ministries.

Pirapan – the energy minister and leader of the United Thai Nation Party in the incumbent coalition government – expressed potential interest in leading the committee and called for the separation of energy matters from the sea border negotiation process. He emphasised the participation of the private sector, which has a keen interest in energy, in the negotiations, as reported by Thai media.

“The foreign ministry is not involved in energy matters,” he explained, adding that the negotiations would face significant challenges if energy and territorial matters were intertwined.

The development rights to the OCA, spanning the Gulf of Thailand and overlapping the Cambodian and Thai borders, have long been a contentious issue between the two kingdoms. Both nations have asserted their claims over this area since the early 1970s.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed in 2001, outlining joint exploration of the area. However, the Thai government decided to shelve this agreement in 2009.

Discussions regarding the joint exploration of the region resurfaced when former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra assumed office in 2011.

After the overthrow of the Yingluck government in May 2014, leaders from both nations sought to resume discussions.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its September 2013 Southeast Asia Energy Outlook, projected a significant decline of 75 per cent in Thailand’s gas production by 2035 and anticipated a rise in domestic demand for natural gas during the same period.

The IEA also identified the resolution of the long-standing dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over the OCA as a promising and enduring asset for Thailand’s energy outlook until 2035.