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Time to solve the oil dispute

Time to solve the oil dispute

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Map of the OCA

While a solution to the contentious problem of the border area near Preah Vihear was not on the official agenda for this week’s meeting of the Thai-Cambodian Regional Border Committee, the issue appears to be foremost on the minds of both Thais and Cambodians.

Regardless of how those negotiations play out, there is a disputed territory between the two kingdoms that may be more important to Cambodia’s development than the disputed area around the ancient temple: the Overlapping Claims Area.

The OCA, of course, is a contested 27,000-square-metre area in the Gulf of Thailand, which is believed to hold extensive oil and gas reserves. However, decades of negotiations have so far been unsuccessful to tap into this potential.

The description of the reserves from former Chevron General Manager for Exploration Gerry Flaherty is by now famous. A February 2008 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, released last month by Wikileaks, quoted him as saying the revenues generated from the OCA would “revolutionise Cambodia”.

Indeed, the OCA could prove more beneficial to the Kingdom’s nascent oil and gas industry – and as a result, the economy as a whole – than its other offshore blocks. At the same time, the revenues could result in a landmark first step for the country as it tries to wean itself off international aid.  

For Thailand, it’s less a question of development than one of meeting its growing energy needs. The country can rely on Burmese gas imports for only so long, and an inability to find new sources of petroleum could end in crisis.

Yet in the face of these opportunities and dilemmas, all eyes remain focused on the disputed area near Preah Vihear.

One shouldn’t disregard the importance of cultural legacy. Nor is Cambodia wrong in fighting for its rightful territory. Even the potential for increased tourism from both the temple itself and a resolved border dispute are reasons to prioritise the issue.

But the OCA arguably deserves still greater priority given its vast potential for the economic development of the Kingdom.

Hope that former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shin-awatra would visit Cambodia last weekend to discuss the OCA faded when his plans reportedly changed and he flew straight to Japan instead.

But yesterday’s Bangkok Post offered new hope that the issue may move to the top of Thailand’s to-do list.

Energy planners there were calling for renewed talks with the Kingdom to ensure energy security, as “Thailand will likely be in trouble” if new energy sources were not found, a Ministry of Energy source told the paper.

The Cambodian National Petroleum Authority said last month it was prepared to engage its Thai counterparts whenever the two governments decided to do so.

The question remains, though, as to how important the issue is to others in the Cambodian government.

Of course, politics and strategy will play into whatever negotiations take place. Cambodia could easily stall the talks for leverage, leaving Thailand to worry about its dwindling energy supplies.

One would hope, however, that the Kingdom recognises the opportunity inherent in Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s rise to power, and take advantage of the close ties to solve this long-standing problem.

Given Thailand’s political history, the window may not be open for long.

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