Cambodia’s foreign policy outlook

Chheang Vannarith / No Comments Share:
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (right) and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen review an honor guard in Phnom Penh, in January 2018. As far as strategic interests and mutual cooperation are concerned, Cambodia perceives China as one of its closest allies. Reuters

As the international order enters into a multi-polar world, Cambodia, it seems, is adjusting its foreign policy objectives and strategies accordingly. In the new world order, current Cambodian ruling elites believe that Cambodia’s destiny cannot be detached from the Asian powers, writes Chheang Vannarith.

2018 has been a challenging year for Cambodia in terms of foreign policy posturing. The rumour that China is eyeing a naval base in Koh Kong province of Cambodia has stirred public discourse within the country and beyond. US Vice President Mike Pence in an official letter has raised this concern directly with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The Cambodian government has clarified several times that Cambodia would never allow any foreign military base on its soil as the Kingdom strictly adheres to a foreign policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Although Cambodia does not have intention to have an alliance with any major power, the international media and observers tend to portray Cambodia as a client state of China.

Such a perception, which does not reflect the entirety of Cambodia’s foreign policy dynamics, has caused serious damage to the country’s international image and role. The tough, punitive measures taken by the European Union and the United States on the perceived abrupt “democratic backsliding” partially reflect their strategic intentions to pressure Cambodia not to align closely with China or in other words to reduce China’s influence in Cambodia.

Pressures from the West have posed constraints on Cambodia’s foreign policy in terms of strategic options. It is widely believed that the EU and the US have been practicing double standards and unfair treatment vis-à-vis Cambodia. The questions raised by the Cambodian ruling elites are: why do the EU and the US only target Cambodia and not other countries in the region which do not have a democratic system? Why do Western countries attack Cambodia for having close ties with China while they themselves wish to build strong ties with the world’s second largest economic powerhouse.

Such external circumstances tend to force Cambodia to invest more in foreign policy formulation and implementation. The 41st Party Congress of the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that concluded this month highlighted foreign policy as one of the key areas that require more attention. Cambodia’s worldview has been largely shaped by the unfolding power shifts in the Asia-Pacific region, the implications of major power rivalry, and the rise of protectionism and unilateralism. From the Cambodian vantage point, protectionism and unilateralism are threatening world peace and order.

As the international order enters into a multi-polar world, Cambodia, it seems, is adjusting its foreign policy objectives and strategies accordingly. In the new world order, current Cambodian ruling elites believe that Cambodia’s destiny cannot be detached from the Asian powers.

So far, Cambodia has signed only two strategic partnerships, one with China in 2010 and another one with Japan in 2013. In addition, Cambodia gives strategic importance to Asean as the most important regional institution in furthering regional integration and helping its members to cushion against foreign intervention and questionable intentions of major powers.

China, Japan, and Asean are the key partners that Cambodia can rely on to realise its development visions of becoming a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050. Development and foreign policy strategies for Cambodia in coming years and decades will stress on East Asia (Southeast and East Asian countries). As far as strategic interests and mutual cooperation are concerned, Cambodia perceives China, Japan and Vietnam as the three main important strategic partners.

Diversifying strategic and economic partners has occupied Cambodian foreign policy makers for many years. The lack of coordination and robust reforms of the line ministries remain a key issue preventing Cambodia from achieving its diversification strategy. The line ministries need to work closer together to implement a more robust foreign economic policy.

There is a strong political will on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFAIC) to develop and implement a more robust foreign economic policy but other government agencies don’t really seem to be onboard. For instance, MFAIC has taken a leadership role in negotiating the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme with the EU – something that should have been the prime responsibility of the Ministry of Commerce. More noticeably, statements and comments from other ministries and agencies are not in line with the position and efforts by MFAIC.

Cambodian ruling elites are fully aware of the risks emanating from overreliance on any single or few markets and countries for their survival. Hedging and diversification are recognized as the key strategies. But implementation is an issue. It takes few more years for Cambodia to develop concrete action plans, build institutional and leadership capacity, and strengthen institutional coordination and synergies between the line ministries in order to effectively implement diversification and hedging strategy.

The US and the EU should be more flexible towards Cambodia in order to avoid being seen as implementing double standards and unfair treatment. The US and the EU should create an increasingly conducive environment for Cambodia to effectively implement its hedging strategy. Multi-layered, multi-sectoral, and multi-stakeholder engagement should be encouraged. As a small country, Cambodia needs more foreign policy options and expanded strategic space to manoeuver.

Chheang Vannarith is president and founding member of the soon-to-be launched Asian Vision Institute and a senior board member of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

 

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