By Khmer Wathanakam
Vast reserves of natural resources in South China Sea have attracted many countries to claim their shares in the area ,and it has become the most potential hot spot of armed conflicts in future. China claimed that its right to the area come from 2,000 years of history where Paracel and Spratlys Island Chains were parts of Chinese nation. But Vietnam counterclaimed that it actively ruled over both island chains since 17th century and had documents to prove it. However, in 1992, China passed its law declaring the entire of South China Sea as its territory. Accordingly, China has issued a number of strongly-worded statement, warning all its rivals to stop any mineral exploration in the area. Nonetheless, a fresh visit of Secretary of State John Kerry to Vietnam and Philippine has put a brake on China's threat and reassured that the U.S. still maintains its "status quo" in Asia-Pacific. Any war between China and Vietnam over South China Sea dispute will force Cambodia to take side clearly as Hun Sen has faced his dilemma to serve his two rival masters--Vietnam and China.
A row in South China Sea has dragged on for decades, involving occasional armed conflicts among the claimants especially between China and Vietnam. In 1947, China officially divulged its map covering most of the area. In 1974, a navy clash between the two traditional foes killed at least 70 Vietnamese sailors, and China seized control Paracel Islands from Vietnam. The next armed clash on Spratlys Islands in 1988 when Vietnam again came off worse, losing about 60 fighters. After these two major battles, frequent skirmishes has occurred since then. To strengthen its position over the area, in 2012 China formally created Sansha City, an administrative body to administer Paracel and Spratlys Island Chains though Vietnam fiercely protested against this move.
A constant territorial dispute between these two powerful nations in the region has pushed Hun Sen into an awkward position on his foreign policy. During the 2012 ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen concluded a summit without a final consensus statement--a first failure in ASEAN summit history--when Hun Sen tried to appease Beijing by deleting the South China Sea issue from a summit agenda that had drawn strong protest from Philippine and placed Vietnam, Hun Sen direct master, in an uncomfortable position. Previously, when Vietnam and China had heated up words of war over a dispute, Hun Sen always claimed neutral while Cambodian opposition openly supported China's claim and denounced Vietnam's historical aggression policy over Indochina and the whole region.
A newly China's air defense claim over dispute islands of Shenkaku with Japan has set an alarm on the countries in the region since they have expected China would do the same on South China Sea. The U.S.--which traditionally has its role as a guarantor of peace and stability in Asia Pacific--saw China's growing re-assertiveness policy as a great threat to its "status quo" in the region. Since the U.S. won "American-Spanish War" in 1898, in which Spain ceded Cuba, Philippine, and Puerto Rico to the U.S., the U.S. Navy power has gradually dominated over Asia-Pacific unchallenged until recently when it has faced steady challenges from China growing sea power.
As China re-assertiveness policy has spread from East Asia to Southeast Asia, a Japanese Hawki Prime Minister Shizo Abe has mobilized a counterbalance against China's menace. For International Relation term, Abe found "a perfect marriage of convenience" with Vietnam and Philippines which have wrestled with a heavy-weight China. At the same time, the U.S. has found the same term with Vietnam--its former bitter enemy; during a recent visit to Hanoi, Secretary of State John Kerry-- a former navy officer during Vietnam War--regarded Vietnam as a viable ally in containing the China's rampant threat.
Kerry announced 32.5 million aid to train the Vietnamese Navy in order to encounter with a large and superior Chinese fleets. Although the aid is not significant, it explicitly shows that the U.S. starts to deploy its old doctrine of containment policy known as "Truman Doctrine" when the U.S. used during the Cold War to contain the Soviet threat and a spread of Communism from its borders. From Turkey to Japan, the U.S. installed its nuclear warheads in those countries in which were in a striking distance to all targets in the Soviet Union.
Now the U.S. has seen a new potential alliance with Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, and South Korea to contain China's fast growing influence in the region. Albeit the U.S. did not provide any modern weapon to Vietnam yet, recently Vietnam has upgraded its navy and air forces by purchasing submarines, battle ships, and jet fighters from France and Russia, which are strong enough to defense itself but not powerful enough to scare China away, and only a de facto alliance with the U.S. may help to keep China on its bay. If this shadow alliance turn out to be clear in future, it will push Cambodia to face a dilemma: Hun Sen will face an unpleasant choice between his two rival masters--Hanoi his direct master and Beijing his powerful indirect master.
As national interest is a hidden agenda in foreign policies of every nation on Earth, Cambodia--a weak and small nation--can still conduct its foreign policy successfully if its leader is wise enough to take advantage from a continuous changing world. In case a war breaks out between China and Vietnam, Cambodia sees a great advantage to side with China when Cambodia is a direct victim of Hanoi aggression policy in Indochina: a loss of Koh Tral, unfair border demarcation, influx of rampant Vietnamese illegal immigrants, and Vietnam covertly controlled Angkor Wat and Bokor resort are just some grievances to present to China in exchange with Cambodia to support China in the war. But if Cambodia continues to side with Vietnam, it has nothing to gain but even lose more when Vietnam has smoothly swallowed Cambodia without China thrusting bones in its throat.