In disputes over the South China Sea, it’s usually China vs. everyone else, with Chinese maps and bullying behavior clashing up against the territorial claims of many of its neighbors. But at the ASEAN summit last week, something different happened: Cambodia took China’s side. Reuters has the story:
Cambodia batted away repeated attempts to raise the issue about the disputed waters during the ASEAN meeting last week as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes Japan and the United States, according to diplomats present.[…]On Friday, the last day of the summit, diplomats scrambled to avoid humiliation and agree an 11th-hour text for a joint statement. Regional giant Indonesia took the lead.Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa even called his Singapore counterpart back from the airport to help draft a deal, the first ASEAN diplomat said.Natalegawa drafted 18 different versions of the statement in a desperate effort to appease both Cambodia and claimant states the Philippines and Vietnam, the diplomat said. . . .But the attempts finally stalled over Cambodia’s unwillingness to accept any mention of the Scarborough Shoal – the site of a recent naval stand-off between China and the Philippines – even after Manila accepted an Indonesian suggestion to change the wording to “affected shoal”.
This is an important story. China has repeatedly resisted other countries’ attempts to “internationalize” the South China Sea territory discussion. Over and over again, China has said disputes should be resolved on a bilateral basis, not in an international forum, and certainly not in any arrangement that includes the U.S.America and China’s neighbors alike wanted ASEAN, the most prominent regional forum, to take the lead on this issue. Because of the increasing frequency of maritime “standoffs” in disputed waters between, for the most part, fishing and naval vessels belonging to China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, territorial disputes were at the top of the agenda at this month’s summit. As the Reuters report chronicles at some length, Cambodia scuttled every single attempt to resolve the problem or even discuss it.Are we seeing the results of some backroom dealing between China and Cambodia? Cambodian officials have vehemently denied anything of the sort. When the Philippine foreign minister’s microphone “malfunctioned” as he brought up the South China Sea, of course it was just a technical glitch. Of course Cambodia was pursuing its own interests, not China’s, when it scuttled 18 drafts of the communique that would have described what had been accomplished at the summit. Of course China’s $1.2 billion investment in Cambodia in 2011 (ten times that of the U.S.) and President Hu Jintao’s four-day visit to Phnom Penh in May (the first such trip in more than a decade) had nothing to do with Cambodia’s position on South China Sea disagreements.For the time being, it seems like China has divided and conquered ASEAN. With friends like Cambodia in charge of the group, there will be no region-wide agreements on disputed maritime territory.In the long run, this could be good for ASEAN. Many friends of the organization have long felt that the ASEAN tradition of requiring unanimous consent on every issue prevents the organization from living up to its potential. Cambodia’s veto of an agreement that its neighbors passionately support will prompt some thinking in other ASEAN countries about whether this approach really works.In the meantime, it is more of a technical and procedural win for China than a substantive one. China’s neighbors will continue to work towards a multilateral approach on this issue, the United States will continue to support them, and China will still pay a diplomatic and political price for its stand.