Cambodia is holding a key in a new era of geostrategic competition and power shifts in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. The US and its allies are concerned that increasing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, will lead to the loss of the US’s supremacy and hegemonic power.
Since 2010, the US has taken an assertive, affirmative strategic intervention in the region. From the Pivot to Asia to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the strategic goal of the US remains the same, which is to check the rising power of China or put a break on China’s rise.
The most convenient way for the US to stay No. 1 is to prevent other challenging powers from being able and capable to replace it. In a wide range of competition, from economic to military, from ideology to technology, the US has upped the ante against challenging powers, especially China and Russia.
Cambodia, due to its geographical location and strategic relevance, has become unfortunately a ground of major power rivalries and great power politics.
Foreign interference into Cambodian politics is not new. After the collapse of the Khmer Empire in late 15th century, Cambodia has been struggling to find its strategic autonomy to own its destiny.
To see far into the future, we need to look back into the past. History provides us great lessons, bad and good.
Looking back into a short history of Cambodia, particularly during the Cold War, it is conclusive that Cambodia has been the victim of foreign intervention, from near and far, from the West and the East.
The US started its strategic intervention in Indochina in the 1960s to counter the spread of communism. Some Southeast Asian countries allied with the US in this mission. Cambodia was in a difficult situation as it was trying to stay neutral by aligning itself with the Non-Aligned Movement.
Being sandwiched by two US’s allies at that time, Thailand and Southern Vietnam, together with the unreasonable pressures from the US, Cambodia was forced to lean towards China for survival. The then Prince Norodom Sihanouk wrote his memoirs on “My War with the CIA” to explain the US’s intentions in Cambodia.
The coup in 1970 by General Lon Nol, with the support from the US, pushed Cambodia into civil war and a genocidal regime by the Khmer Rouge-China was also held accountable for its support for the Khmer Rouge. Since then Cambodia was trapped into great power politics and fell prey to foreign powers.
Cambodia will never forget the sufferings from foreign intervention and occupation, and international sanctions.
Learning from such dark history and bitter experiences, it is imperative for Cambodian leaders, across generations, stay vigilant and cautious, and take all measures to pre-empt and counter foreign intervention.
As a small state, Cambodia is vulnerable to external changes and shocks. Maintaining independent and neutral foreign policy is therefore a matter of survival. No need for other countries to tell Cambodia to stay independent.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn stated that, “Today, countries are labelled as enemies because they are simply deemed competitors or because they refuse to take side irrespective of their context and history”.
“Despite its clear provision, interference has been common and proliferating against what was enshrined in our Charter,” he added.
Foreign interference has been exercised by some countries under the form of humanitarian intervention, democracy and human rights. Geopolitical interest has always been the key agenda behinds these interventions.
Double standards and the manipulation of human rights and democracy for political and strategic objective counter the spirit and real intention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every country should be treated equally and fairly, regardless of its size and power status.
It is a long-term diplomatic struggle for Cambodia to explain the sceptics and the critics that Cambodia is firmly adhering to independent and neutral foreign policy.
Cambodia needs to keep telling the truth that it does not have any intention to host foreign military bases on its soil as this is against the Constitution. Explaining mission has become even more critical in this regard.
There is no security need and interest to allow any foreign country to use Cambodia as its military base. The Cambodian people surely will never allow such to happen- that is democracy.
Cambodia has shown its resolve to fight against foreign intervention, either from the West or from the East, either from the North or from the South. Nothing is more valuable than independence and sovereignty- these are the soul of nation building.
Early this year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen introduced a slogan “reforming at home, making friends abroad based on the spirit of independence”. This is to demonstrate to the world that Cambodia is following an independent foreign policy.
With regards to human rights and democracy, Cambodia has been consistent that peace and development are the preconditions for democracy and human rights.
It is unrealistic to talk about human rights independent of the overall economic development of a society.
The test of democracy is not how we measure up against someone else’s theoretical construct but what works for us given our history and circumstances. We need to understand that democratisation is a process which requires quality and constructive participation from everyone, especially the local community.
Cambodia, as a small state, cannot shape global and regional geopolitical landscape and trends, but it can adapt to changes by building national resilience and enhancing institutional capacity to explore opportunities stemming from evolving global and regional environment.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has taken concrete steps in introducing meritocracy, developing professionalism, and building a pool of talents to navigate Cambodia through uncertain, unpredictable times ahead.