The annual conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation last week highlighted three key words in the formulation of Cambodia’s foreign policy in the new era: sovereignty, self-reliance, and diversification.
Sovereignty has been regarded as the core principle and interest of foreign policy, especially amidst mounting diplomatic and economic pressures from the European Union. Prime Minister Hun Sen has continually stressed that Cambodia will never compromise or surrender sovereignty for foreign assistance. Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn has also emphasised that sovereignty is a matter of survival for Cambodia.
The concept of sovereignty is increasingly critical to the formulation of Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy and approach. Sovereignty is generally understood in the Cambodian context as the absolute, legitimate right exercised by an independent state over its territory and people, without external coercion or interference. Notably, resistance against foreign intervention is unprecedentedly high since the establishment of the Second Kingdom of Cambodia in 1993.
Protecting sovereignty is becoming more challenging for small states like Cambodia. Major powers are not keen to see small states stay neutral as they are willing to force small states to take sides if necessary. In the 1960s, Cambodia was forced to take sides, against its own will and interest.
Now Cambodia has Asean to help protect its sovereignty. However, the future ability of Asean to provide continued protection of sovereignty to its members is uncertain due to increasing pressure from major powers. Asean centrality is at greater risk in the context of heightening geopolitical rivalry between major powers.
Self-reliance and diversification are the two key strategies to protect the Kingdom’s sovereignty. Reducing dependence on foreign aid could help build economic independence and national resilience. And leadership does matter in promoting self-reliance.
Dependency syndrome on external support has trapped Cambodia for many centuries due to internal weaknesses and a lack of national reconciliation and unity. Beginning after the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Khmer rulers of the past sought support from foreign countries to protect or gain power. Since the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, Cambodia has heavily relied on foreign donors for socio-economic development. In the 1990s, some even called Cambodia an “NGO-driven economy”.
Now it is necessary for Cambodia to recalibrate its political doctrine based on the concept of self-reliance, which is very much influenced by the Buddhist philosophy of life. Cambodia should not expect other countries to protect its interests and sovereignty; it needs to rely on itself. Realistically, no country or person is more invested in the interests of Cambodia than Cambodians themselves. Cambodia will be unable to maintain its sovereignty unless it is economically independent and resilient.
Diversification is another key term being used by Cambodian policy makers and analysts alike. There are three layers of diversification at the international, national, and local levels. Internationally, Cambodia needs to build more economic and strategic partnerships, expand export markets, and make new friends. The leadership of the Ministry of Commerce has the responsibility to diversify export markets through bilateral and multilateral trade deals. Remarkably, Cambodia does not have any bilateral free trade agreement with any country yet.
Domestic economic success defines Cambodia’s role and image abroad. The success of Cambodia’s foreign policy largely depends on institutional reforms at home. There is a need to build a new generation of career diplomats who are capable of promoting Cambodia’s political, economic and cultural relations with other countries. Currently, the government gives priority to economic and cultural diplomacy.
At the national level, Cambodia has implemented institutional reforms to diversify its sources of growth and increase its productivity. Moving from labour-intensive industries to skill-driven industries or a knowledge-based economy is a must. Cambodia is running out of time to catch up with other regional economies, especially in the context of the fast-evolving Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Early this year, a working group on digital economy was formed to conduct studies and propose policy guidelines and action plans to direct Cambodia’s future economy. Cambodia could leapfrog its economic structure if it has the right leadership and policy. It is high time for Cambodia to undergo “institutional surgery” to cut off bad, infectious parts of the governance body.
At the local level, Cambodia needs to do much more to diversify its sources of funding and development partners. Fiscal decentralisation is critical to rural development and poverty reduction. Leadership and institutional capacity building for local governments is also required. Merit-based appointment of local bureaucrats must be encouraged, at the provincial, district, and commune levels.
Chheang Vannarith is president of Asian Vision Institute (AVI), based in Phnom Penh.