Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - South China Sea fears laid at US’s door

South China Sea fears laid at US’s door

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) shakes hands with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, before their meeting at the State Department in Washington last month. YURI GRIPAS/AFP
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) shakes hands with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, before their meeting at the State Department in Washington last month. Yuri Gripas/AFP

South China Sea fears laid at US’s door

Addressing a workshop organised by the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhon on Friday said he believes the South China Sea will remain a “hot issue” due to US involvement in the region.

“Even though there are some positive signs, and progress was made by ASEAN and China to establish mechanisms for improving safety and trust, I still foresee the possibility of new challenges,” Sokhon said.

Controversial statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Senate confirmation hearing in January could lead to conflict in the region, Sokhon noted.

The former CEO of Exxon pledged to ban China from occupying the artificial islands it constructed in the South China Sea, causing some to ponder whether a new US-China conflict would soon erupt.

Sokhon also pointed a finger at US President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal, which calls for a $54 billion increase in defence spending, suggesting that any attempt to funnel extra funds to the US military would fuel unrest.

But the criticisms come at a time when the situation in the South China Sea is relatively calm, and to date, no concrete actions have matched Tillerson’s rhetoric.

“There were some early signs that there might be a hardening of policy, and that came through the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments,” said Greg Raymond, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

“Now there has since been no follow up to that statement, and it doesn’t look like it will actually become US policy.”

In the 51 days since Trump took office, the US has continued sending military aircrafts and vessels to assert freedom of navigation rights across the sea. But that policy was begun under former President Barack Obama, Raymond noted.

Meanwhile, fears about Tillerson’s comments have been somewhat tempered by a growing consensus in Washington that he could wield considerably less influence than his post would normally dictate, with observers pointing to Trump’s failure to consult him about important policy pronouncements and his apparent sidelining from important meetings with key world leaders.

Sokhon’s comments come at a time when Cambodian officials have begun conspicuously lambasting the US, reviving contentious issues such as the US bombings during the 1970s and Cambodia’s unpaid war era debt.

Cambodia has consistently backed China in its disputes with neighbours in the South China Sea, blocking ASEAN from issuing statements against Beijing.

Following the most recent ASEAN meeting in the Philippines, Sokhon highlighted China’s important role as a strategic partner, and called for continued work on an ASEAN code of conduct for the South China Sea.

MOST VIEWED

  • US imposes sanctions on Oknha Pheap and Kun Kim

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation expressed strong dismay on Monday over the designation of Cambodian tycoon Oknha Try Pheap and General Kun Kim under the US’ Global Magnitsky Act. “It is very disturbing when the public figures of a country become the

  • Mother, daughter killed in hotel fire

    The bodies of a mother and daughter were found locked in an embrace after they were killed in a hotel fire in Phnom Penh at around 3:30am on Wednesday at the Phkar Chhouk Tep 2 Hotel and Restaurant in Phsar Doeum Kor commune, in the capital’

  • EBA withdrawal a destruction of EU achievements, PM says

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said the EU’s possible suspension of its Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement amounted to a destruction of its achievements in the Kingdom and the demise of the opposition group. Hun Sen made the remarks while addressing more than 6,700 students during

  • US told to refrain from interfering in Sokha case

    Senior Cambodian officials said on Thursday that the US can monitor Kem Sokha’s trial as it wishes but would not be allowed to interfere in court procedures. The point was made in response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on Wednesday

  • Europe expected to consider EBA efforts, impact

    The government said it expects the European Commission to consider its efforts to comply with the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) regulations and the impact on one million workers should access to the agreement be suspended in February. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

  • Sri Lanka’s LOLC Holdings plans to sell Cambodian unit

    LOLC Holdings Plc, Sri Lanka’s second-largest publicly traded company by revenue, plans to sell its 70 per cent stake in Prasac Microfinance Institution Ltd, which also counts Hong Kong’s Bank of East Asia Ltd. as a shareholder, LOLC deputy chairman Ishara Nanayakkara said. Nanayakkara