Some prominent political analysts believe that Cambodia – while serving as the chair of ASEAN – should maintain its neutrality in the decades-old South China Sea dispute, which has been at a stalemate for many years.
They continue to urge China and the ASEAN member states that are parties to the dispute to use bilateral mechanisms to resolve the matter rather than using the ASEAN framework as a tribunal.
The call came as Prime Minister Hun Sen recently expressed his desire to find a negotiated solution to the South China Sea dispute.
On September 27, Hun Sen told European Council President Charles Michel that Cambodia wanted to see the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and that Cambodia would try hard to push the Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations forward in the future.
Vann Bunna, a researcher at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), is of the view that the South China Sea has become one of the most important and controversial strategic waterways in the 21st century because the parties to the conflict – China and four ASEAN members including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines – have not given up their claims and have refused to compromise.
Similarly, Thong Mengdavid, a research fellow at the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), said the South China Sea issue has a lot to do with issues concerning international maritime law, historical and economic issues and national interests as well as questions of strategic military and trade value.
Mengdavid said that parts of the South China Sea are of very high strategic value and serve as invaluable trade routes for the global economy, with around one-third of global maritime trade passing through the waterbody, and billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources said to lie beneath the sea. It is also a connection gateway between the west and the east.
Back in 2002, when Cambodia first hosted the ASEAN Summit, the bloc and China signed the DOC, which essentially states that they will continue to negotiate peacefully to achieve an agreed upon COC.
Separately 10 years later in 2012, when Cambodia chaired ASEAN once again, the bloc was unable to issue a joint statement, for the first time in its 45-year history, on the COC as the parties to the dispute would not accept the facilitation and criticised the Kingdom, claiming it was biased towards China.
Regarding the controversies that prevent the South China Sea dispute from being resolved, Mengdavid claimed that it was due to the interests and strategies of the countries involved that did not comply with international law.
Moreover, it was observed that military skirmishes and verbal jousting between ASEAN members and China had often taken place, leading to the stalemated drafting of the COC.
Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said that the previous settlement mechanisms such as the tribunal were “unjust” and reflected external interference by the west in the sovereignty of the countries bordering the South China Sea.
“The US still adheres to its supremacy and does not want a solution to the question of the division of sovereignty over the South China Sea as the US wants this sea to remain international waters with freedom of navigation and over flight, because it is adjacent to China and because there are important international ports there.
“If there was a division of control it would make sea navigation and aviation more difficult, which would affect the US and other powerful countries’ interests,” he explained.
Bunna cited pragmatic theories regarding China’s ambition to become the world’s sole superpower. This would require China to become a regionally dominant country first and that is an apparent factor in China’s desire to occupy and control the South China Sea, which would add to its political weight on the international stage.
He added that this long-standing maritime dispute has disturbed not only the relationship between China and ASEAN’s countries, it also stoked complex internal conflicts within ASEAN between members such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Regarding the DOC, Bunna emphasised that it is a mechanism for the parties to the dispute to resolve the issue peacefully and act as a basis for future negotiations.
He added that the DOC is a legal mechanism or procedure for resolving disputes through the establishment or use of existing international tribunals, and it has a limited composition of only China and the four ASEAN member states.
In 2016, the Philippines filed suit against China at an international tribunal, which ruled against China and in favour of the Philippines’ claims to certain islands and waters in the South China Sea.
The tribunal also indicated that China’s demarcation of its territorial waters within the South China Sea was done unilaterally, did not reflect actual historical claims and was done in violation of the sovereignty of the nations disputing China’s claims. China rejected the tribunal’s findings despite it being a party to the DOC.
As the chair of ASEAN this year, Bunna believes that Cambodia should maintain a neutral stance by not supporting China or any ASEAN member in the dispute. Cambodia should urge each party to join the negotiation table peacefully and using mechanisms such as the international law on maritime affairs like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Phea also wants Cambodia to remain neutral and for all parties to remain calm and continue to respect the DOC consistently and fully while negotiating the COC as soon as possible.
Mengdavid said that Cambodia must try to facilitate the negotiations between China and the ASEAN member countries and discuss legal measures and making possible economic and political concessions to each other in order to achieve a peaceful settlement through diplomacy and international law.
The analysts agreed that Cambodia should avoid being drawn into the conflict or being forced to take sides or allow a situation where it becomes the entire ASEAN bloc lined up against China.