Prime Minister Hun Sen wrapped up his state visit to India yesterday, with new hope and commitment to strengthen the bilateral partnership between the two countries and their people.
Both sides issued a joint statement covering a wide range of areas of cooperation and signed four agreements on the prevention of human trafficking, mutual legal assistance on criminal matters, cultural exchanges and a dollar credit line agreement of $39.92 million for the Stung Sva Hap water resource development project.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has upgraded India’s Look East Policy to India’s Act East Policy, India has been actively promoting its regional role and influence in Asia.
India is an emerging a major power in Asia, competing with China for its own sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, a contesting ground for competing major powers.
Australia, India, Japan and the US are in the process of forming a kind of quadrilateral strategic arrangement to counterbalance the rising power of China in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the maritime domain.
However, the concept of the Indo-Pacific deal is still fluid – it is an evolving strategic concept. Southeast Asian countries are following closely and cautiously the development of this emerging strategic arrangement.
India has been trying to strengthen its strategic partnership with Asean and individual Asean member states to project its expanding national interests in the region.
India has been far behind China in economic and political engagement with Southeast Asia. It is time for India to double its efforts to catch up with China in foreign policy.
The enhanced bilateral partnership between India and Cambodia reflects the new dynamics of India’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia.
Maritime security is one the core strategic and security issues in the Indo-Pacific. China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has caused concerns for both the direct claimant states and other regional countries.
India has called for the respect of international laws and the freedom of navigation. In their joint statement, India and Cambodia have affirmed their commitment to “maintain peace and ensure safety and security of navigation in the Indo-Pacific Region”.
They also expressed their support for “complete freedom of navigation and overflight and the resolution of maritime issues based on international law, notably the 1982 UNCLOS”.
These commitments on maritime security are the priority strategic interest of the India-Cambodia partnership. India is concerned about China’s increasing influence in the maritime domain.
Goodwill visits by Indian ships to Cambodia have been conducted since 2015. India is going to further support Cambodia’s defence and security sector, mainly through capacity building programmes and personnel exchanges.
From the Cambodian perspective, India is a potential market for Cambodia’s agricultural produce and a core partner in information technology and digital infrastructure development.
India will support setting up a Center of Excellence in Information Technology in Cambodia to strengthen the capacity of Cambodian entrepreneurs and students.
Both sides agreed to sign an early investment agreement to boost investments and create mechanisms to further promote cooperation opportunities between the business communities of both countries.
The bilateral trade volume was about $120 million in 2016. The accumulated investment capital from India to Cambodia, from 1994 to 2017, was $132.5 million. In 2017, only about 50,000 Indian tourists visited Cambodia.
The current bilateral economic relations are far below their potential. India needs to further boost its economic relations with Cambodia as well as with other Asean countries. Otherwise, India cannot compete with China in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.
Cambodia reiterated its support for India’s permanent membership at the expanded UN Security Council. Cambodia has also expressed its support for Japan’s membership. Notably, India and Japan are the two Asian powers competing with China for regional influence.
Cambodia is interested in strengthening its partnership with India, mainly for economic interests, while India has a broader strategic interest in engaging Cambodia.
Chheang Vannarith is an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.