Home > Local News > Thai-Cambodian border dispute could portend greater dangers for Asia

Thai-Cambodian border dispute could portend greater dangers for Asia

PHNOM PENH —Even as much of the
world’s attention focuses on Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, at
least one Asian diplomat believes a new front for global concern is
emerging on the Thai-Cambodian border.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Kyodo News
in Phnom Penh that four days of heavy artillery salvos across the
border that left at least eight dead, almost 100 wounded and tens of
thousands of civilians displaced early this month may be the heating-up
of an emerging U.S.-China rivalry for influence in Southeast Asia,
rather than a simple land dispute between neighboring countries.
On the surface, the dispute near the UNESCO-designated World
Heritage Preah Vihear Temple that has been festering since July 2008 is
a clash of nationalisms exacerbated by internal politics.
But the diplomat suggested the recent clashes are also a sign the
United States may be ‘‘stirring the waters’’ and taking renewed
interest in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
‘‘The United States, in recent years, has come to destabilize
ASEAN,’’ the diplomat said. ‘‘The U.S. came to divide ASEAN through a
new approach by cutting the region apart and that is why the U.S. is
choosing close ties with four lower Mekong countries, as well as an
expression of interest in the South China Sea and engaging in military
exercises in the region.’‘
‘‘The U.S. war game concerning the border conflict is to put
pressure on (Cambodian Prime Minister) Hun Sen, to reduce Hun Sen’s
power, to get Hun Sen out of China’s firm hold and to force him to turn
to the U.S. for help rather than just depending on China alone,’’ he
said.
Partly, it seems, the diplomat’s view has been somewhat colored by a
recent visit to Cambodia by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who
told Cambodian students in November their country’s leaders should seek
balance in international relations.
‘‘You look for balance. You don’t want to get too dependent on any
one country. You want to be able to have partnerships that cut across
regional geographic lines,’’ she said.
Some, it seems, see her stressing of ‘‘balance’’ as having an
undertone of pressing Cambodia to become less reliant on China and on
ASEAN.
Others suggest the longstanding U.S. relationship with Thailand
means it is on one side in the region, China is on the other and ASEAN
is being shown to be an ineffectual pawn somewhere in the middle.
Chea Vannath, an independent analyst in Phnom Penh, said the
conflict between the two ASEAN members cannot help but have serious
impact on the association.
‘‘It shows that ASEAN is not mature enough to solve the issue in a
more civilized manner. ASEAN needs to have another
principle—motto—about the ‘ballot’ and not the ‘bullet.’ To put down
the gun, take up the Dharma,’’ she said.
And Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute
for International Cooperation, said ASEAN’s image has already been
damaged by the border war.
‘‘It demonstrates the limitations of ASEAN in dealing with regional
conflict. However, it is also an opportunity for ASEAN to reflect and
rethink about creating an effective conflict resolution mechanism which
gives a breakthrough for future development. ASEAN needs to create
ASEAN peace keeping forces ready to cooperate with the U.N. and ready
to deploy to prevent war and conflict. It is a significant turning
point for ASEAN. All ASEAN members should move forward with this,’’ he
said.
One question is, however, is ASEAN able to act effectively at all with China and the United States somewhere in the shadows?
Several analysts say the dispute is local—Thailand using Preah
Vihear to get voter support, stir up the spirit of nationalism and show
off Thai military supremacy while Cambodia is showing off an upgraded
military able to counter attacks, stirring up solidarity with the
ruling party and for the ruling party to be ‘‘recognized as a defender
of Cambodian sovereignty and integrity.’‘
Others, such as the Asian diplomat, see more sinister motives.
The latest armed clashes broke out, essentially, over Chinese New
Year and while thousands of U.S. troops are engaged in annual military
exercises with the Thai military in some areas a just a few hundred
kilometers from the border clash point.
The questions in Phnom Penh at least are whose nose is being tweaked and whose might is being showcased?
Next week, the dispute moves to the U.N. Security Council where both China and the United States hold vetoes.
How those two powers react to the Cambodian desire to have
international intervention in its dispute with Thailand may offer some
indication of whether the Phnom Penh diplomat’s concerns about
Chinese-U.S. rivalry emerging in Southeast Asia are prescient, or
paranoid.
Their reactions may also offer some indication of how ASEAN will
fare Feb. 22 in Jakarta when its foreign ministers meet to discuss the
increasingly hostile relations between two of its 10 members. 
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