Between a rock and a hard place

Between a rock and a hard place

Poor Cambodia.

Just when everything appeared hunky dory for its much ballyhooed role as this year’s ASEAN chairman, Phnom Penh suddenly gets sucked into a conflict of terrifying proportions.

It is a dispute which Cambodia cannot possibly mediate, nor can it avoid upsetting all sides, including its principal financier, China.

The problem relates to sovereignty rights over the waters that border more than half the countries of ASEAN and which are home to lucrative fish stocks and potentially huge oil and gas reserves.

The body of water is generally referred to as the South China Sea, though ironically, in Chinese, it is called the Southern Ocean, with no reference to the country that claims the whole lot.

Of the other claimants, the two who assert rights over the largest areas and who have challenged China most vigorously are the Philippines and Vietnam.

They have their own name for the territory: Manila refers to it as the West Philippine Sea, while Hanoi calls it the East Sea.

These two ASEAN nations, whose stance Cambodia, as the group’s chairman, should defend, are on a collision course with China and they have already drawn Phnom Penh into the firing line.

During the first week of this month, eight Chinese fishing boats entered the Scarborough Shoal, a wide lagoon rich in fish and lying off the southern Philippine province of Zambales.

The shoal is well inside the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, but it also falls within China’s brazen “nine-dash line” marking its claim to the whole of the South China Sea.

Manila dispatched a naval vessel to arrest the fishing boats, but this action was rebuffed by two Chinese surveillance ships and the fishermen escaped.

Soon afterwards, three more Chinese navy ships arrived to defend their nation’s claim to the area, and Beijing spurned a Philippine offer to let the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea rule on the dispute.

In effect, Beijing’s maritime might appeared to have resolved the incident in its favour.

But perhaps not, because Manila and its allies have started to fight back.

On Friday, the Philippines and the United States completed a 10-day joint maritime exercise off Palawan Island, not far from the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Part of the exercise involved recapturing oil and gas rigs which had been occupied by a mock enemy.

Stretching credulity to the limit, both Manila and Washington insisted that the invading “enemy” was not intended to represent China.

Naturally, Beijing was sceptical and warned that such moves could “lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation”.

As well, it explicitly cautioned other ASEAN allies like India and Russia against attempting any resource exploitation in the disputed waters.

India angrily retorted that no country has “unilateral control over” the world’s seas and that it would continue oil exploration in the area in partnership with Vietnam.

Likewise, Russia ignored Beijing’s warning, and through its major energy company Gazprom, signed an agreement with Vietnam to develop two blocks off the country’s coast.

Meanwhile, Hanoi backed Manila’s proposal at this month’s regional summit in Phnom Penh to resolve all territorial issues multilaterally within ASEAN.

China adamantly opposes this and insists that sovereignty disputes should be resolved bilaterally.

So poor Cambodia is caught in the middle between China, its major political and economic backer, and its fellow ASEAN colleagues, whom it should support as chairman of the group.

This festering but seemingly intractable conundrum was embarrassingly evident at the regional summit held here earlier this month.

There, contrary to the Cambodian foreign ministry’s public stance – made at Beijing’s insistence – that the South China Sea would be kept off the agenda, it was intensely discussed by the leaders.

And despite what Cambodia may say, it will unquestionably be debated even more intensely and more embarrassingly at the ministerial meetings in July and the leaders’ summit in November.

Prepare for fireworks.

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