The Thai government has proposed to adjust its negotiation strategy with Cambodia regarding the overlapping claims area (OCA) in the Gulf of Thailand, with the aim of expediting talks and reaching an agreement on the joint extraction of petroleum resources.
According to a report by Thai PBS, the Cambodian Minister of Mines and Energy, Keo Rattanak, and Thailand’s Ambassador to Phnom Penh, Cherdkiat Atthakorn, had held discussions on energy and petroleum cooperation even prior to Thai Prime Minister Sretha Thavisin’s visit to Cambodia in September 2023.
Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, also visited Cambodia in September, after which he commented that the Thai government needed to establish a new joint technical committee before resuming negotiations on the OCA with Cambodia.
It still, however, remains unknown who will be included in the committee and whether it will be led by the foreign affairs or energy ministries.
Separating Energy Extraction From Delimitation
Current Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister of Thailand, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, has also expressed his desire to be involved in the negotiations. He has suggested that the private sector should play a significant role in the negotiation process and also proposed separating matters related to the energy sector from the sea border negotiation.
“The Foreign Ministry has nothing to do with the energy matter,” he said, emphasising that the negotiations would not succeed if the energy and territorial matters were tied together.
Pirapan added that the focus of negotiations with Cambodia should shift towards joint development rather than the delimitation of the territorial sea.
“We need energy from the OCA, not the delimitation of the territorial sea. It’s difficult and time-consuming to settle disputes over territory since no country can easily accept changes in its boundaries,” said Pirapan.
He also acknowledged that Thailand and Cambodia have made claims to their respective continental shelves and territorial seas based on different laws and at different times.
“Both countries have legitimate claims, so it’s hard to judge who is right or wrong,” said Pirapan. “If we cannot settle the dispute easily, what is the point of making it more complicated by linking the two issues together?”
History Of Cambodia And Thailand’s Overlapping Claims
The territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia dates back to the 1970s, while efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully have been ongoing since the 1990s. The OCA of 26,000 square kilometers in the Gulf of Thailand is believed to hold significant reserves, including up to 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, condensate and oil.
In 2001, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed to establish mechanisms for negotiation and joint exploitation of natural resources. The Thai Cabinet rejected the MoU in 2009 due to tensions over land boundary disputes, however, subsequent administrations have since reaffirmed the document’s fundamental importance to negotiations over the OCA. Even so, ongoing efforts made by successive Thai governments have failed to result in significant progress, partly due to domestic issues.
Pichai Naripthapan, an advisor to the Thai prime minister and a key member of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, has suggested that the negotiations should focus on the matter of energy and establishing a joint development scheme, as members of the public continue to be burdened by high energy costs.
Pichai has stated that even if both countries were able to reach an agreement on the OCA today, it would still take at least eight years to extract natural gas for consumption.
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