The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Exactly a decade ago, Cambodia played a key role in convincing ASEAN countries and China to sign the historic Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) on Nov. 4, 2002 in Phnom Penh.
At that time. Cambodia was chairing the 8th ASEAN Summit. Cambodia once again assumed the chairmanship of 10-member ASEAN in January 2012, but will it repeat the success of 2002, this time by convincing both China and ASEAN’s South China sea claimant countries to sign a Code of Conduct (CoC) on implementing the DOC?
Given the close links of Cambodia to China, which invested some US$1.1 billion in 2011 in the Southeast Asian country, some people expressed doubts about Phnom Penh’s sincerity in raising the South China sea issue at the 20th ASEAN Summit on Tuesday.
None other than Chinese President Hu Jintao made a surprise visit, the first official visit in 12 years, to Phnom Penh last week just ahead of the ASEAN summit. This raised suspicions about possible pressure from China on Prime Minister Hun Sen, not to include the controversial issue of South China Sea, a maritime region rich in oil and gas and fisheries, on the summit agenda as a host.
“The Cambodian [ASEAN] presidency seems under the influence of China,” Lao Monghay, an independent political analyst in Phnom Penh, told the Voice of America recently.
“This is a negative point for the whole of ASEAN.”
The South China Sea issue threatens the peace and stability not only in Southeast Asia but also Asia. It is also threatening ASEAN’s unity. Though it doesn’t have any claim, Indonesia has long realized the danger and has tried to find a solution by organizing numerous informal workshops.
After intensive efforts by Indonesia, Cambodia and ASEAN, China signed the DOC in Phnom Penh in 2002. But the DOC was just a modus vivendi and was also a first step toward finding a comprehensive solution to the problem.
“The declaration is only an interim political agreement,” Connie Rahakundini Bakrie, a defense scholar from the University of Indonesia, said at an international seminar on the “Prospects of Cooperation and Convergence of the Issues and Dynamics in the South China Sea” in Jakarta recently.
Last year Indonesia tried to put forward guidelines on implementing the DOC and received approval from China. As ASEAN chairman, it is Cambodia’s responsibility to put forward a draft of the CoC to maintain regional peace and stability.
As a small player in ASEAN, Cambodia is not in a position to influence the collective decision of ASEAN countries but as a chairman it can make the draft CoC a priority during the next ASEAN meetings.
Another problem is whether ASEAN, which is aiming to become a single community by 2015, can really act as a single entity in solving the contentious South China sea issue.
“One should not take ASEAN unity for granted,” Amitav Acharya, a US-based Southeast Asian scholar, said at the same seminar that was jointly organized by the Habibie Center and the Center for Asian Strategic Studies-India (CASS-India).
Though it is an inter-governmental organization, ASEAN does not have a common foreign policy. In the case of South China Sea issue, only four ASEAN countries — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — have sovereignty stakes in South China Sea. The rest have different stances on the issue.
The bone of contention among the claimants is that China wants to negotiate the issue on a bilateral basis while others think that it should be dealt with at the regional or international level.
“The problems must be solved through peaceful negotiations based on international law, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the DOC, and should go forward to the COC ,” Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh told the Radio Free Asia on Monday in Phnom Penh.
It is time for all ASEAN members, China and other interested players, who have respective stakes in the regional architecture, to unite and find a solution to South China Sea dispute.
“We have to wage an aggressive peace, just as countries prepare for and plan for aggressive wars,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the Sydney Morning Herald recently on his visit to Canberra.