The fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen led the Cambodian participants in the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in Phnom Penh last week in resisting the release of a post-meeting communiqué dealing with tensions in the South China Sea, and the fact that no agreed position was achieved, should scarcely be a surprise.
For at least a decade now, Hun Sen has routinely referred to China as Cambodia's most trusted friend. China is by far Cambodia's most important aid donor, and the Cambodian Government did everything it could to keep the South China Sea off the agenda of the ASEAN Summit held in April of this year.
So Cambodia paid its dues, or, in the words of a diplomat quoted in a New York Times report, 'China bought the chair, simple as that.'
Despite the sharp reaction of the Philippines, with Indonesia taking a more measured approach, commentaries that stress the extent to which Cambodia's behaviour at this meeting might undermine ASEAN unity will surely have to be judged in the longer term. After all, it is worth noting that there is already an underlying lack of unity among those members of ASEAN which have conflicting claims in the South China Sea.
In any event, it is interesting to see that the Bangkok Post has been ready to carry an editorial suggesting that keeping the South China Sea off the agenda was probably the right thing to do since it would not be desirable for ASEAN to take a position in a dispute that now has clear major power overtones involving both China and the US. To the extent the editorial represents Thai official thinking, it of course reflects the fact that Thailand is not involved in any of the South China Sea's claims and counter claims, making it easy to adopt a detached position.
Photo by Flickr user Un rosarino en Vietnam.