A Cambodian government spokesperson has publicly condemned the United States for sailing a warship close to disputed man-made islands in the South China Sea.
In a story published late Tuesday, Chinese state media outlet Xinhua reported that Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, accused the US of “flexing its muscles” and creating tension around the contested Spratly islands.
“The US is not [an] involved party in this issue, so it should distance itself from this matter,” he was quoted as saying.
The USS Lassen, an armed destroyer, entered what China claims as a 21-kilometre territorial limit around the disputed territories on Tuesday.
Siphan repeated his criticism of the US in an interview yesterday.
“The truth hurts the United States, but it has to respect the parties involved resolving things themselves,” he said. “A warship in that area could escalate tensions. We are civilised people, and we don’t want anyone to resort to military means or violence.”
Cambodia would rather support an ASEAN code of conduct that was being hammered out by the organisation with the various claimants to the disputed territory, he said.
“We are a member of ASEAN,” Siphan said. “The parties need to sit down and talk in a patient way.”
However, just five months ago, the Cambodian government was vehemently opposed to ASEAN taking a role in resolving the dispute.
“ASEAN cannot resolve this problem because we are not a court that can judge who is right or wrong, or which piece of land or water belongs to which country,” Secretary of State Seung Rathchavy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters at the time.
South China Sea expert Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of International Relations at University of New South Wales, yesterday said Cambodia’s current criticism of the US is part of a recent tendency to side with China.
“In 2012, when Cambodia was chairing ASEAN, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong took a very pro-China position and prevented the regional bloc putting out any statement mentioning the South China Sea dispute,” he said. “Cambodia was later rewarded by China with a big aid package and investment.”
Thayer added that aid and investment from China were more attractive to Cambodia than financial help from the US.
“China does not put conditions on aid around issues such as human rights, unlike the US and Europe,” he said.
But according to chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies, Chheang Vannarith, who is currently lecturing in the UK, Cambodia is not backing one super-power against another, but rather continuing a long-held policy of staying out of conflicts involving other states.
“It is not good for Cambodia’s long-term interests for it to take sides,” he said. “Cambodia has long pursued a policy of non-alignment and neutrality, which is laid down in the country’s constitution.”
He added that Cambodia’s own experience of resolving recent hostilities with neighbouring Thailand had shown it “that bilateral negotiations work best when it comes to sorting out differences”.
A US Embassy spokesman yesterday declined to comment.