Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's recent visit to Cambodia marks a significant step in strengthening bilateral ties between the two countries -- a relationship historically characterised with border conflicts and armed disputes.
During his visit, Mr Srettha met his Cambodian counterpart, Hun Manet, in Phnom Penh to discuss boosting bilateral trade to US$15 billion (551 billion baht) by 2025. Both countries pledged to deepen their ties.
This meeting holds particular importance as both leaders are relatively new to their roles. Mr Srettha assumed the premiership just a month ago, while Hun Manet became the Prime Minister of Cambodia in August, succeeding his father, Hun Sen.
Coincidentally, both leaders officially took office on Aug 22, with Mr Srettha receiving royal endorsement as the Prime Minister of Thailand and Hun Manet being sworn in as the Prime Minister of Cambodia on the same day. Cambodia is the first country in Asean that PM Srettha has visited. The new political landscape in these two Southeast Asian countries should usher in a new chapter of cooperation, especially in economic and energy affairs.
Regrettably, there are no media reports about substantial energy cooperation being discussed between the leaders. Thailand and Cambodia have faced conflicts over the overlapping maritime area for decades, hindering both nations from benefiting from abundant resources, particularly fossil energy.
Given the escalating costs of oil and the global economic slowdown, Cambodia and Thailand should initiate serious discussions to address this dispute. Mutual cooperation in energy fields could reduce dependence on energy imports and be mutually beneficial.
Past successes, such as the Thai-Malaysian agreement in 1979, where both countries agreed to split the benefits of certain operations within their overlapping seas, should serve as inspiration. They established the Thailand-Malaysia Joint Authority to collaborate effectively.
While the conflicts, including Cambodia's territorial claims over the Thai island of Koh Kut, are complex, a sincere and neighbourly dialogue is essential for mutual benefits. Thailand has a pressing need to solve the issue due to declining natural gas reserves since 2005 and decreasing imports from Myanmar. Cambodia, too, will face rising energy demands due to its oil and gas sector being more mature and its rapid economic development.
Furthermore, discussions on conflicts are expected to be lengthy as they need to settle many issues, ranging from economic to security perspectives.
The overlapping claims area is essentially a no-man's-land, where exploration has never been allowed. Despite the belief among many experts that this area holds significant potential, the exact value and quantity of gases beneath the sea floor remain undetermined. An intensive exploration effort is necessary before resources can be tapped, a process that will undoubtedly take time.
Both countries must engage in bilateral negotiations to establish clear boundaries. Comprehensive talks on various issues, including taxation, customs, jurisdiction, environmental management, and the allocation of rights among concessionaires are crucial. A truly win-win solution is attainable, but it requires sincerity and compromise from both countries. Through genuine dialogue, mutual understanding, and collaboration, Thailand and Cambodia can not only resolve their disputes but also pave the way for a new chapter of cooperation.