How can a small state like Cambodia navigate through the increasingly complex and uncertain geopolitical landscape in the Asia Pacific region? This question has occupied the centre stage of Cambodia’s foreign policy design for many years.
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen reaffirmed Cambodia’s foreign policy principle of neutrality and non-alignment. He said we have relations with all countries and our foreign policy objective is to serve socio-economic development.
“This is the evolution of Cambodia’s foreign policy,” he added, while announcing his upcoming state visit to India.
Last weekend, the extraordinary party congress of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) also highlighted the foreign policy principle of neutrality and non-alignment.
The statement is made amidst rising concern that Cambodia is moving too close to China and the overdependence on China may pose certain constraints on Cambodia’s foreign policy options or shrink the room for a strategic manoeuvre.
China is now the top donor and investor for Cambodia. China’s economic presence and political leverage has significantly increased since the signing of the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in 2010.
In addition to a bilateral mechanism, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asean-China Strategic Partnership and the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation are the key regional and sub-regional cooperation mechanisms that Cambodia can benefit from the rising power of China.
Although Cambodia-China relations run deep, it should not be taken at the expense of good relations between Cambodia and other countries. Cambodia is willing to build friendships and partnerships with all countries, depending on mutual trust and interest.
Observing Cambodia’s foreign policy behaviour a bit closer, it is noticed that Cambodian leaders at different levels have made official visits to different countries over the years with the aim to diversify its economic partners and friends.
Expanding export markets, attracting foreign direct investments, welcoming international tourists, forging international cooperation, promoting Cambodian cultural identity and prestige and looking for development assistance constitute the main goals of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Economic integration at the regional and sub-regional levels, especially through liberal multilateral trade arrangements, has been a pillar of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Asean has been regarded as a cornerstone, if not the cornerstone, of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Asean serves as a springboard as well as a lifeboat for its member states.
Guided by the “Act East Policy”, India is strengthening ties with Southeast Asian countries with the aim of promoting India’s economic and political presence and leadership role in the region.
Cambodia welcomes a more proactive role of India in both geopolitical and geo-economic realms.
Cambodia-Japan relations have been remarkably strengthened too. Cambodia has expressed its support for Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” – it seeks to enhance connectivity between Asia and Africa through a free and open Indo-Pacific to promote stability and prosperity of the regions as a whole.
Cambodia-US relations have been somehow much constrained by the issues of democracy and human rights. It seems that now there is no effective mechanism in place to restore political trust and normalise the bilateral relations.
The US remains the most powerful country in the Asia-Pacific although its comprehensive power is relatively declining. The National Security Strategy released last December set a new direction for the US’s engagement in the Asia Pacific by redoubling its commitment to “the established alliances and partnerships”.
The power rivalry between China and the US is expected to heat up from this year, which in turn could create a security dilemma and strategic challenges for Southeast Asian countries. If the small states cannot balance external relations, then they will fall into the trap or become a pawn of a major power game.
Neutrality is more easily stated than practiced. Cambodia was the victim of Cold War geopolitics and now is facing unprecedented geopolitical challenges. To have balanced, stable external relations requires strategic articulation and nuances with a practical roadmap.
Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung launched an edited book on “Cambodia’s foreign policy in a regional and global contexts” last week in Phnom Penh. The book provides a comprehensive analysis on the evolution of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Sok Siphana observed: “Cambodia’s foreign policy imperatives have been dictated internally by its historical, cultural, geographical and political contexts while externally shaped, to a great extent, by powerful forces of globalisation, competing geopolitical multipolar rivalries, and the rising of traditional and non-traditional security threats, as well as other mega trends like climate change and food/energy security issues, to mention just the major ones.”
Path Kosal said: “As a small state in the changing hierarchical structure of regional and global power, Cambodia’s quest for national unity and sovereignty occupies Cambodian national leaders’ central concern throughout the history of its domestic politics and foreign relations.
“Without economic endurance and political stability, foreign powers’ meddling in Cambodia’s domestic affairs is a constant theme of its struggle for national unity and autonomy.”
The key question for Cambodia is how to strengthen national unity and diplomatic capacity, how to maintain a balanced external relationship and how to transform a fast-changing external environment into a source of national development.
Chheang Vannarith is an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.