President Moon Jae-in’s current state visit to Cambodia is a crucial milestone in South Korea–Cambodia ties and also augurs well for Asean. Cheunboran Chanborey tells why.
The President of South Korea or the Republic of Korea (ROK), Moon Jae-in, is currently on a state visit to Cambodia which will end tomorrow. This is the first visit of a ROK president since President Lee Myung-back’s state visit in 2009 and official visit in 2012.
This visit will be an important milestone in Cambodia-ROK bilateral ties. The Cambodia-ROK bilateral ties have been rapidly promoted since the two countries established diplomatic relations on October 30, 1997.
Diplomatically, the bilateral ties have been cemented by frequent high level-visits. Noticeably, Prime Minister Hun Sen has paid official visits to the ROK five times since 2001. The bilateral ties have also been promoted through annual Cambodia-ROK Joint Commission (JC) Meetings, which are co-chaired by vice foreign ministers of the two countries.
Economically, Cambodia and the ROK have promoted their ties under the guideline of the Cambodia-ROK Joint Economic Committee. The ROK has been one of the leading investors in Cambodia with an accumulative FDI of $4.47 billion during the period of 1996-2018. It is worth mentioning that the ROK has invested in 123 industrial projects, which have generated more than 80,000 jobs for Cambodians. As of 2017, Cambodia was the seventh largest Korean investment destination, valued at $137 million.
The ROK’s foreign assistance has also played an important role in Cambodia’s economic development. During the course of 1996-2018, ROK offered a total grant aid of $300 million to Cambodia in five priority areas, including transport, water resource management, public health, education, and rural development.
Bilateral ties have also been strengthened by people-to-people contact and cultural connectivity between the two nations. With more than 50 direct fights per week between Cambodia and the ROK, South Korean tourist arrivals in Cambodia have significantly increased to 345,000 people in 2017. For the Cambodian side, approximately 61,580 workers were sent to work in the ROK under the Employment Permit System from 2007 to 2018. The ROK has also been supportive for the promotion of cultural cooperation and the preservation of Cambodian cultural heritage, including the restoration projects of Preah Pithu Temple and Elephant Terrace of Angkor Thom.
Having said that, Cambodia and the ROK have yet to realize the potentials in their bilateral relations. Bilateral trade between the two countries remain modest, which amounted to only $746 million in 2018, of which Cambodia exported only $202.9 million to the ROK. With a relative large market of over 51 million people, Cambodia needs to further tap into the potentials of this market. Market diversification is now more important than ever in the context of the EU’s threat to lift duty-free preferences given to Cambodia in the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Cambodia should promote few products that it has strong comparative advantages. A positive development is that Cambodia will soon export fresh mangoes to the ROK after a formal inspection of the newly completed processing plant in Kampong Speu is completed later this month.
This will mark an important step for Cambodia’s food processing industry in its access to this highly demanding market in terms of sanitary and phyto-sanitary procedures, and will definitely pave the way for Cambodian products to be exported to other important markets. Cambodia’s economic diplomacy team needs to further study the Korean market and identify more products that Cambodia can export and increasingly take its share in this crucial market.
The Cambodian government has recently laid out the National Industrial Development Policy (2015-2025) in order to modernize Cambodia’s industrial structure from a labour-intensive base into a skill-driven one by 2025. It has also aimed to transition Cambodia into a predominantly digital economy by 2023. In order to achieve these goals, assistance and support from advanced countries, including the ROK, are needed. The Cambodian government should attract Korean investors to promote Cambodia’s digital economy and industrial innovation.
Strategically, there is need for Cambodia to widen and deepen security and strategic cooperation with dialogue partners to address its security threats and challenges. In this regard, the ROK can help Cambodia expand its strategic space. Therefore, Cambodia should encourage the ROK to upgrade their annual JC mechanism into a consultation dialogue at the Foreign Ministerial level. The two sides should also consider promote their bilateral ties to a comprehensive partnership and eventually strategic partnership in the future.
At the sub regional level, the ROK has lately expressed its strong interest in the Mekong region. In this regard, Cambodia should prove itself to be a bridging state in the Mekong region and with key dialogue partners including the ROK on three important fronts, including physical connectivity, people-to-people contacts and knowledge sharing, the building of strategic trust among the Mekong countries and with external powers.
Finally, 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of Asean-ROK Dialogue Relations. The ROK has declared the “New Southern Policy” in order to upscale and uplift its relations with Asean under three pillars namely, People, Prosperity and Peace. Cambodia should be more proactive in order to add new momentums to advancing the Asean-ROK strategic partnership for the benefit of the peoples of Asean and the ROK.
Cheunboran Chanborey is a member of the board of directors, Asian Vision Institute.