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China’s Hu Visits Cambodia as Asean Leaders Eye Sea Disputes

Chinese President Hu Jintao
Hu Jintao, China's president. Photographer: Graham Crouch/Bloomberg

President Hu Jintao today becomes the first Chinese head of state to visit Cambodia in 12 years, in a trip days before Southeast Asian leaders gather for talks that may touch on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Hu’s visit, which lasts until April 2, will deepen ties between Cambodia and China, its largest investor, the official Xinhua news agency reported March 27, citing the country’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, the capital. China appreciates Cambodia’s support on core interests, the report said, adding that China opposes outside interference on the South China Sea.

“Cambodians will not want to upset the Chinese by pushing the South China Sea on the agenda of the Asean meeting,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. In the past two years, previous hosts Vietnam and Indonesia “really pushed the issue, so that momentum will slow under a Cambodian chairmanship,” he said.

Vietnam and the Philippines have pushed the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take a common position regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where Exxon Mobil Corp. and Talisman Energy Inc. are searching for oil and gas. Cambodia holds the bloc’s rotating chairmanship.

The South China Sea contains oil reserves that may total as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. China used patrol boats last year to disrupt hydrocarbon survey activities in waters it claims, chasing away a ship working for Forum Energy Plc off the Philippines and slicing cables of a survey vessel doing work for Vietnam.

The Philippines said in January it’s ready to host a summit to help resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China must meet with the countries claiming part of the sea “under the guidance” of Asean as soon as possible, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Jan. 15.

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