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Cambodia still values ties with Australia

Cheunboran Chanborey / Khmer Times Share:
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (left), Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia Malcolm Leader (centre), and Prime Minister Hun Sen toast with champagne after the signing, in Phnom Penh, of an Australian aid package to Cambodia in May 2000. Reuters

Cambodia and Australia have more to gain bilaterally and regionally from the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Sydney if domestic politics, currently being played to the gallery, is left out of the agenda, argues Cheunboran Chanborey.

Australia will host, for the first time, the Asean-Australia Special Summit on March 17 and 18. Canberra has stated that, “the summit is an historic and unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Australia’s strategic partnership with Asean and deliver tangible economic and security benefits to Australia.”

Strategically, Asean has played an increasingly important role for Australia. Canberra regards Asean’s centrality as the main anchor for its multilateral diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. Australia, in turn, has actively joined all Asean-led regional initiatives.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has confirmed that he would attend the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Sydney and this illustrates the importance of Australia for both Asean and Cambodia.

Bilaterally, Cambodia and Australia established the Senior Officials’ Talks between the two countries’ foreign ministries last October. This is a new mechanism aimed to further strengthen cooperation dialogue and consultation on political, security, economic and cultural fields as well as to exchange views on issues of common concern and interest between the two countries. The first Senior Officials’ Talk will be held in Cambodia later this year.

Economically, Australia has provided market access for all kinds of Cambodian goods since 2003 under its Generalised System Preferences. Despite minimal volume, Cambodia-Australia trade relations are on the rise.

In 2016, bilateral trade between the two countries increased more than 10 percent compared with the previous year, to around $131.91 million. From 2016 to 2018, Australia provided official development assistance worth around A$177 million ($138.4 million) in areas such as agriculture, health, education, infrastructure, rural development, good governance, the rule of law, women empowerment, and disability rights.

Cambodia-Australia defence cooperation has also been promoted. From 2003 to 2017, Australia dispatched 15 navy ships to Cambodia aiming to strengthen bilateral defence cooperation, exchange experiences, train the Cambodian Navy, and provide assistance in humanitarian interventions.

Australia has also provided technical assistance in a range of areas including the development of an effective Cambodian counter-terrorism capability, a defence strategic review, maritime security, and English language training. Australia, too, provided technical support to help develop the Cambodian Defence White Papers in 2002 and 2006 and has promised to support the upcoming one.

However, there are some constraints and challenges diplomatically for Cambodia-Australia bilateral relations. Politically, there is a perception in Phnom Penh that some Australian politicians have manipulated Cambodia’s domestic issues for their political gains back home. With the approaching state and federal elections, the Labor Party is scrutinising closely the Turnbull coalition government’s policies, including its ties with Cambodia.

Cambodia-Australia ties have been further complicated by the political role of the Cambodian diaspora constituencies in Australia. According to the 2016 census, the Cambodian diaspora in Australia, including those born in Australia of Cambodian descent, is estimated to be around 60,000.

Hong Lim, Labor Party MP of Victoria, and his political ally Chea You Horn, president of the Cambodian Association of Victoria, are staunch critics of the Phnom Penh regime. They have announced publicly that they are supporters of the opposition CNRP and are actively engaged with Cambodian diaspora communities in Australia to mobilise financial support for the party. CNRP leaders are their frequent political guests and these two have also tried to lobby Australian politicians, particularly within the Labor Party, to exert pressure on Cambodia’s leaders.

However, the support for the ruling CPP among the Cambodian communities in key Australian cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra – has also markedly surged following the creation of the CPP’s youth overseas network initiated by Hun Manet in 2015.

As of December 2017, there were more than 1,500 official members and many more supporters of the CPP. According to Koy Kuong, Cambodian Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, as Hong Lim and his associates are mobilising hundreds of people to stage a protest against Prime Minister Hun Sen, the premier will be warmly welcomed by more than a thousand of his supporters from across Australia.

One issue that is currently contentious is the A$55 million deal between Australia and Cambodia for the relocation of refugees from Nauru to Cambodia that was signed between Cambodian Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on September 26, 2014, in Phnom Penh. Opposition Labor Party leaders have reportedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the agreement because as of March 2017, Cambodia received only seven refugees. Former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans called the deal “a joke in bad taste”.

It seems that the Cambodian government has gained more advantages from the agreement. However, Phnom Penh should be more nimble in using the deal as diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis Canberra.

Strategically, although Australia is crucially important for Cambodia to broaden its strategic space in the Asia-Pacific region, strategists in Phnom Penh still harbour a perception that Australia remains the United States’ deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific.

But Cambodia has been cautious not to be trapped in a competition among major powers in the region, and does not want to be seen as taking sides. Canberra has recently been labelled as one of the most anti-Chinese governments in the region. The Turnbull government has engaged in war of words with Beijing over China’s alleged interference in the domestic politics of Australia.

And Canberra has lately been proactive to forming new security and economic arrangements, such as the Quad and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), with a primary strategic goal of preventing the realisation of a Sino-centric regional order.

The author is a senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute of Strategic Studies and lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh.

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