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Ongoing South China Sea divisions loom as ASEAN Summit issue

People pass by flags of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries along the banks of the Mekong river in Vientiane yesterday. Ye Aung Thu/AFP
People pass by flags of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries along the banks of the Mekong river in Vientiane yesterday. Ye Aung Thu/AFP

Ongoing South China Sea divisions loom as ASEAN Summit issue

Prime Minister Hun Sen landed in Laos yesterday for the ASEAN summit. Awaiting him is a divide within the regional body over the recent South China Sea verdict that could foster tensions ahead of an upcoming expo in China next week.

On his Facebook page, the premier touted maritime security, along with terrorism, climate change and regional economic development, as the hot-button issues. And, he added, officials would have the difficult task of formulating a joint statement at the end of the summit.

In an article for think tank the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, published yesterday, researcher Cheunboran Chanborey posited the South China Sea dispute, which most dramatically affects Vietnam and the Philippines, was the Kingdom’s most difficult foreign policy dilemma.

“It seems that Hun Sen’s confidence in ASEAN has gradually faded due to the grouping’s ineffective response to the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict from 2009-2011,” he wrote. “Most importantly, China, not ASEAN, has become Cambodia’s largest foreign benefactor . . . [and] the biggest provider of military assistance in Cambodia.”

For Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, two main factors have influenced Cambodia’s stance on ASEAN-China relations.

“First, economic ‘carrots’: China since the late 1990s has been the principal financial patron to Hun Sen’s Cambodia in terms of investment, trade and, increasingly, overseas development assistance,” Chambers said in an email.

The second was the historical friendship with China to offset pressure from direct neighbours. “Today it looks as though Hun Sen is cosying Cambodia into becoming a dependency of China, and from there building relations with Vietnam and Thailand,” he said.

But regional analyst Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, pointed out that “ASEAN dialogue should not be confused with bullying”, as the premier had in Chanborey’s article.

“Consensus means that some contentious issues, like mentioning the Arbitral Tribunal award, are dropped because consensus cannot be reached,” he said via email.

“The Hun Sen regime has adopted its position on the South China Sea mainly as payback for outside pressures from the US, EU, Japan and other states to address human rights concerns and promoting free and fair elections,” he wrote. “In contrast, China does not attach conditions to its aid . . . Every time the US imposes sanctions, China steps in to fill the void.”

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