Friday, April 06, 2012

Cambodia’s Big Role To Play In The South China Sea Conflict

A column I wrote for Khmer 440...

The last time a Chinese Head of State visited Cambodia was 12 years ago, so the timing of President Hu Jintao’s visit just four days before Cambodia chairs a major regional summit may be a coincidence.

But no doubt his arrival in Phnom Penh today will be viewed by some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an example of China’s growing assertiveness in a region that it’s long had one foot in.

The economic bloc – made up of Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – will discuss a range of issues like climate change, disaster management, workers’ rights, agriculture, tourism, human trafficking, as well as plans for a drug-free zone to be set up across SE Asia within the next three years.

But the elephant in the room – the decades old dispute over who owns the South China Sea, or East Sea if you live in Vietnam – is unlikely to get much table time, with Cambodia already saying the issue will be off the agenda, and Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand also reluctant to get involved.

China’s claim – as can be seen in the highlighted area of the top picture – is by far the largest, covering most of the sea’s 1.7 million sq km, including the potentially oil and gas rich Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

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