A ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) seems to be a work in progress and it is still not clear how much support it could garner from Asean member states. Chheang Vannarith argues that as long as FOIP serves common regional economic interests, Cambodia is willing to be part of it.
One of the most interesting issues at the 51st Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings in Singapore from July 30 to August 4 was the perception of Asean member states on the evolving concept of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), collectively initiated by Japan, the United States, Australia, and India.
Asean has not come up with a common position on FOIP yet as different countries hold different views on the concept, based on the calculation of risks and opportunities. China and Russia are strongly against FOIP for the perceived fear of strategic encirclement. FOIP might create more regional security flash points and tensions if it is purely a strategic institutional statecraft.
Geopolitical competition currently seems to be intensifying as strategic distrust between major powers rises along with the unfolding trade war between the US and China. Regional security flashpoints such as the North Korea’s nuclear programme and maritime disputes in the South China Sea remain unsettled although there are some signs of improvement.
The Mekong region, for better or worse, is becoming the new strategic frontier of the Indo-Pacific due to its geographical location and the presence of all major powers. The tensions over the management of the Mekong River will likely escalate as Japan and the US put more emphasis on the issue.
Cambodia is facing a dilemma in expressing its position on FOIP, amidst pressures from all corners. However, the bottom line is that Cambodia for several occasions has expressed its support to the Japanese version of FOIP due to a deep strategic trust and partnership between the two countries. It can be said that Cambodia’s position is more bilateral than multilateral.
Nevertheless, now FOIP is gaining steam and is becoming one of the key regional architecture that could affect the whole region. Cambodia has to adjust and make use of FOIP. It will likely support the multilateralism of FOIP as long as the following four conditions are met.
Firstly, FOIP does not marginalise the role of Asean in shaping the evolving regional architecture. There are legitimate concerns among Asean member countries that FOIP is an exclusive club of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, the US). FOIP must be inclusive and contribute to the central role of Asean.
Secondly, any regional initiative including FOIP must be complementary to and compatible with the existing Asean mechanisms and blueprints, especially Asean Vision 2025 and Asean Master Plan of Connectivity. From the Cambodian perspective, connectivity should be the main component of FOIP.
Thirdly, FOIP does not aim to target, either in the form of strategic encirclement or containment, a third country particularly China. Asean member countries do not wish to choose sides between major powers. Diversification and hedging strategy are common foreign policy elements of Asean member countries, being implemented at varying degrees.
Fourthly, FOIP must have a strong economic pillar. For Cambodia, economic interests matter most in designing and implementing its foreign policy. As long as FOIP serves common regional economic interests, Cambodia is willing to be part of it. So far only Japan has shown strong financial commitment in promoting regional connectivity under the framework of FOIP.
Cambodia is more comfortable with the leadership role of Japan in promoting FOIP. The Japan-Mekong cooperation mechanism, especially Japan-Mekong Connectivity Initiative, will play an increasingly important role in materialising FOIP. The upcoming 10th Mekong-Japan summit by the end of this year will be a significant milestone in strategically and economically linking the Mekong region with FOIP.
At the 9th Mekong-Japan Summit in 2017, the leaders of the Mekong countries expressed their support to a Japan-proposed FOIP, which is believed to contribute to “advancing connectivity in the Mekong region and beyond”. Connectivity is the key word here and it will be likely reiterated in the future joint statements.
As Thailand and Vietnam are competing to become the hub of the Mekong region, Cambodia geographically located between these two countries is forced to develop its own strategy in order to stay relevant and be able to grasp the opportunities emerging from regional integration and connectivity, as well as from the soaring geo-economic and geopolitical competition in region.
Chheang Vannarith is visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.