It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states, writes Chan Kunthiny.
Explaining Cambodia’s foreign policy through the prism of either “Sinicization” or “anti-Americanism” does not reflect the dynamics and complexity of Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy. These two conceptual approaches ignore the underlying dynamics of Cambodia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.
To analyse any country’s foreign policy, one has to at least understand what constitutes the national interests of that country. As a small state, Cambodia defines its national interests based on the following four factors.
Firstly, protecting territorial integrity. No foreign pundits have ever looked at Cambodia’s foreign policy behavior from this aspect. Cambodian people have a strong “victim mentality”— owing to the long history of foreign invasion and occupation following the fall of the Khmer Empire. The latest border skirmishes and tensions between Cambodia and its neighbors occurred in 2011 (with Thailand), 2015 (with Vietnam), and 2017 (with Laos).
Cambodia had exercised its utmost restraint and exerted diplomatic means to resolve the border tensions and disputes. This needs to be recognised.
Secondly, maintaining sovereignty and independence. For any small states, practicing the Westphalian system in reality is probably similar to Martin Luther King’s fight for the rights of black people despite the constitutional equality of all citizens. Small states face huge challenges in maintaining their sovereignty and independence as they are subject to coercion or invasion by more powerful nations.
From an outside-in perspective, small states tend to be willing to cede their sovereignty and independence in exchange for security protection or economic benefits. And from the inside-out perspective, there is a generalisation that superpowers are all the same in the way that they exert their power without respecting the interest of their weaker states.
Thirdly, preserving peace and stability. This has been taken for granted by both outsiders and some insiders. The sad truth is that peace and stability that Cambodians have been enjoying since it gained total peace in 1998 is in fact the longest peace in Cambodian history after the collapse of the Khmer empire in 15th century.
As a post-conflict country, Cambodia remains vulnerable to political instability if strong leadership and institutions are not in place. Cambodia needs to keep nurturing the culture of peace, social harmony, and political dialogues.
Fourthly, sustaining economic development. Cambodia has been quite successful in eradicating poverty – from absolute poverty in 1979, to a more than 50 percent poverty rate in the 1990s, and now to almost below 10 percent. This is a remarkable journey of
development and nation building. It needs to be noted that after gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia had only one high school and the post-colonial Cambodia did not have a proper state apparatus to provide sufficient public services. Moreover, peace did not last long enough to allow state institutions to get reformed and strengthened.
The above four factors are all critical and intertwined.
For example, even if internal peace and stability is so dearly important for Cambodia, it can never rule out the possibility of war if foreign powers interfere and violate Cambodian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Since the early 1980s, the Cambodian government has been domestically and internationally accused of being a “Vietnamese puppet” that allegedly ceded territory to its so-called master. However, the fact is even after nearly 40 years of border negotiation, both sides have not completed border demarcation. If Cambodia were a colony of Vietnam, the border demarcation would be completed in Vietnam’s favor, just like when the French colonial master decided everything on behalf of Cambodia.
Another lingering perception is that Cambodia is willing to lose its sovereignty and independence just for the sake of material incentives provided by China. This is the theory of “Sinicization” of Cambodia. In its publication on July 19, the Nikkei Asian Review featured Cambodia in the front page with the title “Cambodia’s Chinafication”. In contrast, its latest article on August 24 entitled “Thailand rolls out red carpet for 500 Chinese companies” provided a softer tone of discrimination. It should be noted that despite Cambodia’s seemingly good relations with China, Cambodia has never had the opportunity to receive 500 Chinese companies in one single delegation.
Another important fact is that so far there is no case of any purchase of Cambodia’s public property and infrastructure by Chinese entities. It should be noted that all the deals are leasing contracts or BOTs (Build-Operate-Transfer). Moreover, in terms of risk of indebtedness, Cambodia is seen as being constantly aware and wary of the trend when it declined a loan offer from the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank in May 2017.
Concerning the relationship between “sovereignty and independence” and “economic development”, the futility of threat of sanctions and aid cut by some major powers to pressure a sovereign state to reverse its judicial verdicts is truly a type of neocolonialism that Cambodia has consistently rejected.
All the above four factors should be the analytical lens when one seeks to understand Cambodia’s foreign policy behaviours. The four factors are the barometers of Cambodia’s foreign policy towards other countries.
It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states.
Cambodia will never kowtow to any major power. Cambodia has been and will be consistent in linking its foreign policy with peace, stability, territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence, and economic prosperity.
Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodia analyst based in Phnom Penh.