For several years, the Asia-Pacific states have been concerned with the confrontation between China and a number of different states in the region over the South China Sea (SCS). China’s opponents are the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that are seeking support from the other states constituting the association. However, the association also includes supporters of China, and attempts to turn ASEAN into a site for the resolution of the SCS issue have failed several times.
The dispute over the SCS has troubled the ASEAN unity, splitting it into the supporters and opponents of China’s policy. China and countries like Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines are involved in a confrontation over a number of islands and a considerable part of the waters surrounding them. All these states have access to the SCS. They are also supported by Singapore. Between Singapore and Malaysia lies the Strait of Malacca, which serves as a waterway for the ferry ships heading across the SCS. Thus, the economies of these countries depend on free navigation on the South China Sea, and they find China’s claims running contrary to this concept. The US supports the opponents of China mainly because of its two goals: political (to retain influence in the region via friendship with these states) and economic (goods worth more than $5 trillion are shipped through the SCS and the Strait of Malacca every year). If China takes over full control of this region, the US might suffer great losses.
China’s supporters in this issue are ASEAN states that do not have any interests in the SCS but have great interests in China. These include Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Through its friendly neighbours, China exerts significant influence in the ASEAN, with itself not being a member of the association. Due to this influence by China, the ASEAN has long been unable to determine its position on the SCS.
Cambodia is especially active in providing its support to China. For the first time ever, the final document at the Forum of Foreign Ministers of ASEAN was not adopted in 2012, due to Cambodia, which disagreed with the resolution on China and the SCS.
It should be noted that, from the political and economic perspective, Cambodia is not the most powerful member of ASEAN. However, it hindered ASEAN from successfully adopting the joint anti-China resolution. This is because all ASEAN decisions are adopted by consensus, and if one state chooses not vote for a particular resolution, this automatically nullifies the decision by all the other states. Thus, every ASEAN member state has a leverage to influence the policy of the entire Association.
The ability of a member state to block any decision of ASEAN that is contrary to its own interests makes each member of the Association an appealing partner for different external powers seeking influence in the South East Asia. China and the US are competing for Cambodia and the other countries. The US position in the region is becoming increasingly precarious because it understands the importance of each new partner.
In late January 2016, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, visited Cambodia. He met with the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Hor Namhong. The aim of Kerry’s visit was to convince the Cambodian leadership to join China’s opponents on the SCS issue at the forthcoming ASEAN+USA summit in the US city of Sunnyland in February. However, after the negotiations, Hor Namhong announced that Cambodia did not intend to change its position, and ASEAN should not interfere in the territorial disputes between certain countries. This statement is entirely in line with China’s opinion.
Nonetheless, the US did not stop attempting to attract Cambodia to its side. In May 2016, the World Bank (with the US as its main shareholder) resumed financing of new Cambodian projects related to healthcare, infrastructure, water supply, and agriculture. In 2011, the World Bank had suspended financing of the new projects in Cambodia due to the forced land reacquisition from several thousand people by the Cambodian government. This financing has now been resumed, and the World Bank has decided to invest $130 million in Cambodian projects. However, this fact has not changed the position held by the Cambodia government.
It should be mentioned that Cambodia has had long-term friendly relations with China, which is its major economic and political partner. China provides considerable support to the Cambodian government, while Cambodia, in its turn, advocates Chinese interests in ASEAN. At the same time, Cambodia has no interests in the SCS.
On July 24, 2016, the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN convened a meeting in the capital, Laos Vientiane. Shortly before the meeting, on July 12, 2016, the Hague Court of Arbitration sustained a claim filed by the Philippines in January 2013 on the invalidation of the borders in the South China Sea that China intended to establish by referencing to its historical rights on the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Reef and a considerable part of the water area. Vietnam and the Philippines enthusiastically welcomed this decision of The Hague, while China chose not recognize it.
The above-mentioned meeting by the ASEAN Members on July 24 became the next stage of this discussion. Despite all efforts by the US, Cambodia defended the position of China at this meeting, with its major opponents being Vietnam and the Philippines, who were trying to seek the collective disapproval of China’s actions by all ASEAN Members. Vietnam and the Philippines did not concede. Cambodia used its right and did not support the collective resolution. Consequentially, once again, the ASEAN states failed to reach a common position with respect to China and the SCS.
After this, China’s leadership expressed its gratitude to Cambodia.
Cambodia is an agrarian country; most of its population works in the rice production sector, which is an important source of income for the country. Cambodia is one of the world’s major rice exporters, together with Vietnam, Myanmar and the US. In late summer 2016, the global prices of rice sharply dropped, which dealt a strong blow to the Cambodian economy. The country faced unrest. China helped Cambodia in this situation. In September, Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, announced that starting 2017, the country would double imports of the Cambodian rice. According to the Cambodian government, this would stop the reduction in rice prices and correct the situation. There is no doubt that Cambodia finds such support to be more important than loans from the World Bank.
In October 2016, Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, made an official visit to Cambodia. As a result of the visit, the two countries signed 31 treaties, including those on loans worth $237 million. A week later, China and Cambodia signed a number of new partnership agreements in the military and technology fields. According to Cambodian Defense Minister, Tea Banh, China is ready to support the country in modernizing its armed forces, which will contribute greatly to the strengthening of Cambodian national defence.
The example of Cambodia demonstrates that strong political and economic ties with some members of ASEAN give China greater influence on the political decision of the entire organisation. At the same time, Cambodia is not the sole country in ASEAN with which China enjoys such ties. In recent years, the Celestial Empire has strengthened its relations with Myanmar and Thailand. The US attempts to lure these countries to join the anti-China bloc are likely to fail. These states’ economies are too dependent on China. In addition, China has such an advantage as the territorial proximity. And since ASEAN policy has to be agreed to by each of its member states, it is clear that this organisation cannot be used against China.
Dmitry Bokarev, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”