Diplomacy is almost always about timing. Chinese President Hu Jintao offered a lesson in the virtues of diplomatic timing by showing up in Cambodia over the weekend.
As he departed from Phnom Penh on Monday,Hu successfully consolidated the emerging strategic partnership with Cambodia and nicely complicated Southeast Asias effort to deal with the territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.
Cambodia,which holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of the South East Asian Nations,is hosting the annual summit of the regional forum this week. As the incoming chairman,Cambodia will have considerable influence on shaping the ASEAN discourse on the South China Sea. Since 2010,the South China Sea has emerged as a hot-button issue in the ASEAN.
Even before Hu landed in Phnom Penh,Cambodia,which has been steadily drawing close to its giant neighbour,China,in recent years,had announced that the maritime dispute would not be on the official agenda of the ASEAN summit.
Cambodia,however,will not be able to prevent one of its fellow members of the ASEAN from raising the subject.
In recent years,the Philippines and Vietnam have been embroiled in a widening naval brinkmanship with Beijing in the waters of the South China Sea that are said to be rich in hydrocarbon reserves.
After his meeting with Hu,the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sens spokesman said that Phnom Penh shared Beijings view that the South China Sea dispute should not be internationalised. According to reports from Phnom Penh,Hu Jintao told Hun Sen that China is willing to finalise a code of conduct in the South China Sea but cautioned against moving too fast.
Winning Cambodias neutrality,if not tacit support,in Chinas disputes with the ASEAN over the South China Sea is a major diplomatic advance for Beijing.
Over the last two decades,China has emerged as the biggest trading partner and largest foreign investor in Cambodia. As Chinas commercial profile in Cambodia has risen,so has Beijings political influence in Phnom Penh.
During their weekend meeting,Hu and Hun Sen agreed to double their trade to $5 billion by 2017. Hu pledged $40 million in grants and more than $30 million in loans to Cambodia. Hun Sen,of course,wants a lot more from Beijing. He asked Hu Jintao for an annual loan of between $300 million and $500 million for the development of infrastructure in Cambodia.
The fact that only some ASEAN nations (Brunei,Malaysia,the Philippines,Vietnam) contest Chinas expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea,has made it rather easy for Beijing to probe the regional divisions.
The countries with the largest stakes in the dispute,for example,Vietnam and the Philippines,want the ASEAN to negotiate collectively with China over a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing is naturally interested in preventing the emergence of a collective ASEAN position.
At the foreign ministers meeting ahead of the summit this week,the Philippines argued that ASEAN should develop a common position on the code of conduct before sitting down with China. Many other members of the ASEAN,however,insisted that there was no harm in launching negotiations with Beijing right away.
The idea of a code of conduct between China and ASEAN was first mooted in 2002. In a bid to defuse tensions,the two sides agreed last year to develop a set of guidelines for implementing the code of conduct. Vietnam and the Philippines have begun to express disappointment at the lack of collective political will in the ASEAN to stand up against an assertive China. Other ASEAN members without a direct conflict of interest with Beijing feel the Philippines and Vietnam are needlessly provoking China.
Outplaying the US
If Beijing was surprised by Washingtons decision to inject itself into the South China Sea disputes with the ASEAN in 2010,Chinese diplomacy is now focused on outwitting the United States in the region.
Chinese diplomats are reminding ASEAN leaders of the perils of relying on a distant power to balance a rising neighbour. While Americas pivot to Asia is an interesting concept,they say,Chinas growing power is a geographic fact.
While they initially welcomed the US intervention to balance Chinese assertiveness,many ASEAN members are now nervous about being sucked into a great power conflict in the South China Sea. The US attempts to reclaim primacy in Asia is running headlong into Chinas sophisticated probing of the ASEAN cleavages.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi