Hu wants Cambodia help on China Sea dispute, pledges aid

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao asked close economically Cambodia on Saturday not to push talks on the vexed issue of the South China Sea “too fast” as he pledged to double bilateral trade to $5 billion and announced fresh aid to the impoverished country.

China's President Hu Jintao (L) and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) drink champagne after witnessing a signing ceremony at the Peace Palace in the Office of the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh March 31, 2012. Hu visits Cambodia from March 30 to April 2. REUTERS/Tang Chhin Sothy/POOL

Cambodia holds the rotating chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, giving it influence over the agenda and talks over resolving growing tensions in the disputed maritime area.

Hun Sen told Hu that while other ASEAN countries would likely raise the issue at the body’s two-day summit in Phnom Penh starting on Tuesday, Cambodia shared China’s belief that the issue should not be “internationalized,” according to Sri Thamrong.

Phnom Penh has already said the issue is off the official agenda for the meeting.

The Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of flexing its military muscles over the region believed to be rich in energy reserves and which has seen a rise in naval brinkmanship among the three nations in recent years.

Hu told Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that China wanted to move toward finalizing a code of conduct in the South China Sea but not “too fast” so that the dispute does not threaten regional stability, Hun Sen’s advisor Sry Thamrong told reporters after the leaders’ meeting in Phnom Penh.

That would risk worsening a divide in ASEAN over how to handle the decades-old territorial dispute at a time when Washington is refocusing its military attention on Asia and strengthening its alliance with the Philippines.

China, which says it has sovereignty over the sea and the islands within a looping “nine-dashed line” on its maps, rejected a Philippine proposal within ASEAN in November to define contested areas and allow joint development.

The two leaders agreed to target a doubling in bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2017, according to Cambodia’s top government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.

China has pledged more than $2 billion in aid to Cambodia since 1992, mostly in soft loans, Cambodia’s government says.

China’s foreign direct investment in the country was $1.19 billion in 2011, almost 10 times that of the United States, according to an estimate by the government’s Council for the Development of Cambodia.

Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Ed Lane