Territorial disputes: South China Sea (Part 11) [Post 126]

South China Sea and Cambodia

The South China Sea constitutes today’s most difficult foreign policy dilemma for Cambodia since ASEAN and China are both crucially important for the kingdom’s security and economic development. Since becoming an ASEAN member in 1999, Phnom Penh has attached a great importance to the integration of Cambodia into the regional grouping. In fact, ASEAN has always been the cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy. Cambodian policymakers were convinced that ASEAN would be a crucial platform through which their country could safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as promote its strategic and economic interests.

Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is aimed at: (1) continuing implementing the declaration of conduct (DOC); (2) urging ASEAN and China to make the utmost effort to finalize the code of conduct (COC); and (3) encouraging countries concerned to discuss and resolve their issue because ASEAN is not a court. Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that, “ASEAN cannot measure land for them…the South China Sea is not an issue between ASEAN and China.”


China has emerged as a major foreign player in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen once said Cambodia’s strong economic growth in past years has owed a great deal to China’s investment and steady technical and financial assistance. Since the ASEAN–China Free Trade Agreement was put into force in January 2010, China has become the biggest trading partner and the number-one export destination for ASEAN countries. China’s trade with

ASEAN jumped sevenfold between 2000 and 2010, to 232 billion USD (ASEAN 2012). The growth of trade between China and Cambodia is the highest vis-à-vis the bilateral trade between China and any given ASEAN country.

While Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines have a closer relationship with the US, China’s closest allies are Myanmar and Cambodia. China needs those two countries’ support in the wake of disputes (for example, the South China Sea dispute) and in order to maintain regional security in general.


Over half of all foreign direct investment in Cambodia in 2016 came from China. Much of Cambodia’s consistently strong economic growth (over 6 percent annually) is driven by Chinese in-vestments in infrastructure and industry as well by Chinese tourism. Beijing has also provided millions of dollars worth of mili-tary aid in recent years, donating military vehicles and uniforms, tanks, patrol boats, assault rifles and helping to build military training facilities. Cambodia in turn has lent its support to various Chinese foreign policy initiatives, for example repeatedly watering down ASEAN communiqués ad-dressing China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Other ASEAN states have accused Cambodia of undermining regional cooperation on behalf of China.


For ASEAN, the challenge will be getting all 10 members to come to a unified viewpoint on the South China Sea issue; meanwhile, Beijing, which has been growing more assertive on maritime issues, is unlikely to step back over its sovereignty, which it calls a core national interest.

Cambodia has long argued that the maritime disputes in the South China Sea are not a matter for ASEAN because they are bilateral disputes. Cambodia has no direct interest in South China Sea issues yet it has repeatedly intervened to either water down or block any wording that China might object to.


The South China Sea and ASEAN Unity: A Cambodian Perspective

Cambodia-China Relations: A Positive Sum Game?

Cambodia: The Winner Takes It All

The Diplomat


Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @London1701

17th September 2018

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