Chinese and ASEAN representatives are meeting in Siem Reap to begin hammering out a code of conduct for the highly contested South China Sea.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry said Cambodia was hosting the director-general-level meeting yesterday and today.
China has openly dismissed an international tribunal’s determination that the sea’s rocky outcrops cannot be used as the basis for territorial claims, though ASEAN members such as Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which are embroiled in the territorial disputes with China, applauded the decision. While the disputes persist, Beijing has consistently expressed interest in finalising a code of conduct for the region among its neighbours.
Cambodia, meanwhile, has a habit of derailing any attempt by ASEAN, which relies on consensus, to condemn China for its activities in the disputed waters, and has discouraged member states from negotiating their disputes as a unified bloc. But according to one analyst, Cambodia’s role as host of the negotiations could help improve the Kingdom’s reputation with other ASEAN members, and bolster its image as an important diplomatic player.
“It’s a good thing for Cambodia to have this role and host this meeting instead of being only seen as a spoiler that is always supportive of China,” said Pou Sovachana, deputy director of the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).
It is likely that Cambodia, as host of the initial meeting, will take the lead in the negotiations, said Paul Chambers of Thailand’s Naresuan University. But, Chambers argued, it’s also likely Phnom Penh will work to ensure the code is “diluted and ambiguous” so China does not face formalised opposition from ASEAN.
“Cambodia has an important role in these negotiations, for China, to weaken any ASEAN resistance to China’s increasing militarization of the South China Sea,” Chambers wrote in an email.
Attendees of the meeting could not be reached for comment. But Greg Raymond, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, disagreed that Cambodia would play an important role in drafting any code of conduct.
“Cambodia’s role is likely to be smaller than that of Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. Partially due to its more limited diplomatic capacity and partially due to its generally pro-China stance, it’s likely to be allowing others to do the heavy lifting,” Raymond wrote in an email.
Sophea Hok, a Ministry of Information official and former colleague of Director-General for ASEAN Ouk Sorphorn, confirmed that Cambodia is “just the host country”, saying the real leaders were China and Singapore.
Regardless of who takes the helm, Raymond said, there is “determination to get this done”. “[But] finding something acceptable to both sides, in terms of concrete limits on things like island reclamation and installation of military facilities, may be difficult,” he wrote.
For Sovachana, of the CICP, the most important thing is that the code be specific and enforceable.
“It’s not important how long it takes [to negotiate], it depends on how effective it is,” he said. “It needs to have some teeth, but I think that’s been lacking in ASEAN.”