Friday, August 19, 2016

Cambodia’s decision in South China Sea dispute, to blame?

By Sophavatey Leak

This blog was developed as part of the Voices of Youth blogging internship assignment requirement. Views expressed here are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.

© South China Sea claims map by Voice of America

Just recently, on July 12, the International Court ruled that China’s claim to the large proportion of the South China Sea was invalid.

The South China Sea dispute has been going on for centuries. Six different countries – China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan – have all been competing claims over the territory and sovereignty of the ocean and a series of islands in the area. It is only in the recent decades that the issue has escalated.

Back in January 2013, the Philippines sought for international arbitration at the Hague tribunal under the help of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to challenge its claim against China.

Despite the ruling, the economic superpower China refused to adhere this verdict from The Hague.

Trying to resolve the long-term conflict, Vietnam and the Philippines tried to bring ASEAN to uniformly forge a joint statement calling China to conform to the verdict, back in the 49th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane in July 24.

However, Cambodia and Laos opted to stay out of the statement.Consequently, the two countries have been receiving many criticisms saying that their decisions were made under the pressure of China’s power.

Cambodia, in particular, was heavily decried for again blocking statements related to South China Sea Issue.

Should Cambodia take the blame?

In my opinion, I cannot strongly give a yes or a no answer to this question.

Indeed, this is a practical choice for Cambodia to make. Cambodia is not a part of the disputed area. The country would not gain any benefits from going against China, who is the large economy that the country relies on, in defending the statement of ASEAN. Hence, Cambodia is only trying to protect its people, and the criticism saying that it is the betrayer of ASEAN is unfair.

On the other hand, the association has been leaning towards a policy of constructive engagement, in which Asean would take on a diplomatic role in addressing problems occurring in member countries. A good example would be ASEAN’s involvement in Myanmar from 2003 to 2007. In this case, ASEAN called for the country to work on its democratization and the release of the house arrested Burmese politician, Aung San Suu Kyi. Based on this example, we can see that Asean as a group is trying to protect the political security of its member state. The yet again decision of Cambodia to remain neutral in the South China Sea dispute caused the bloc to unsuccessfully exercise its power in resolving the long-term issue, allowing others to question the community’s effectiveness.

The blame on Cambodia also brought me to think of the time I met Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, the former Secretary General of Asean and Ambassador-at-large at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, back in early July this year through a youth leadership summit I attended. Ambassador Ong had raised an interesting analogy of Asean to a house of sibling members. In a family, siblings do not necessarily agree with each other all the time. There might be certain things that interest one sibling but not another. If we were to look at the South China Sea dispute this way, we can see that it might have a great significance on some nations but not on others. We certainly can’t force everyone to agree on the same thing because each nation goes through different conditions.

Although siblings live under the same roof, they are still unique individuals with different sets of value and importance. To live together in peace and harmony, we have to take into consideration one another’s perspective; try to understand both sides of the story by doing more research and learning of what is really there as accurately as possible before straight up pointing fingers at someone right away.

There are still many things that the ASEAN family has to improve on; however, with a little bit more understanding and positive mindset, I believe that we will be able to witness prosperity together.

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