Do as we say, not as we do: Cambodia in a polarised world

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Members of Jobbik, a Hungarian far-right party, attends the inauguration ceremony of the "Hungarian Guard" in Budapest August 25, 2007. A small group of far-right Hungarians formed the uniformed "guard" unit on Saturday amid calls by Jewish and Roma groups for it be banned, saying the body sported Nazi-era symbols. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

“It can be hard to rally the people behind a message of pragmatism, compromise and limits” writes Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale University. Her piece in The New York Times Magazine, published in early February, is entitled: “The Political ‘Center’ Isn’t Gone – Just Disputed.”

The article observes “the shrinking of the political middle” around the world. As the powerful (and the powerless) take sides, the article suggests countries find it harder to get things done. Where has the “center” gone? It is shifting, according to Ms Gage. Meanwhile, those who are firmly camped on the right (more often than not) persist in preaching about pragmatism, compromise and limits.

Washington evicted its “centrist elements” with the arrival of Donald Trump in 2017. The American president wasted little time in coming to blows with allies and friends, while he dallied with the confused and the forlorn.

China was painted as an enemy of the United States. Festering trade issues gave way to rhetoric that a columnist for Foreign Policy Magazine, in the fall of 2018, suggested was fueled by a president who is “bent on restoring a mythic past and whose national security establishment is in deep need of an adversary.” (That national security establishment has since been heard to wonder if that adversary might well be in the White House). US Vice President Mike Pence delivered the jabs, accusing Beijing of “employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence.” (That has a familiar ring to it as well).

Cambodia was caught up in the undertow when the town crier turned his attention to a suggestion from his befuddled security establishment, to the effect that China might be angling to set up a naval base in Koh Kong province. Prime Minister Hun Sen made it clear that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia bans the presence of foreign military installations.

“Cambodia is capable of defending itself” he said. Full stop. Pence was served with a letter of reply and little or nothing has been heard about the matter since.

When it comes to international relations, the prime minister says competition is welcomed in economic and social spheres and that Cambodia will cooperate with other countries in matters of military drills and preparedness exercises. For example, two Japanese naval vessels are to dock at the Sihanouk Autonomous Port in late February. China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world respectively, are important strategic partners for Cambodia. The two great powers have been at odds time and again, but they continue to improve their relationships and Cambodia benefits as a mutual friend in peace.

Diplomatic observers suggest that Cambodia’s curdled relations with the United States and with the European Community should be mended since it is “better to have friends on both sides of the world.” This is true, but a sound relationship is based on meeting a partner halfway.

It all comes down to respecting the choices and priorities of the other. In the final analysis, it is about taking sides. The sky seems more likely to fall when your own house is in disarray. “Do as we say, not as we do” won’t do.

Leap Chanthavy is a Cambodian political analyst.

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