The foreign policy of small states is constrained by the size and location of the country and its natural resources and population. Small states are more vulnerable to external changes and shocks, the level of dependency on external sources for security and development, and the perception of their national roles.
Size does matter for small states. They find it difficult to have favourable foreign policy outcomes than larger nations. To make up for this, small states tend to focus on their immediate geographic area and economic diplomacy, with an emphasis on international rules and norms, while promoting multilateralism and international cooperation.
The primary objective of small states is to ensure their survival and strengthen their position and relevance in a fluid or even anarchic international system. The fast-evolving international system together with global power shifts is posing more challenges for small states to adjust and realise their foreign policy objective. Hence they must play smart and be innovative in order to achieve their foreign policy goals.
Cambodia is thriving to stay relevant in the international system through the implementation of a dual-track diplomacy: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Recently, Cambodia has taken a relatively proactive approach in strengthening multilateralism and a rules-based international order as these two norms are under stress and threat caused by unilateralism and protectionism. The US retreat from multilateral institutions has caused severe disruptions and turbulence in the international liberal order.
Cambodia’s foreign policy is at a critical juncture as the country remains at the frontline of geopolitical rivalry in the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. Geopolitical risks are heightening as major powers are vying to create their own sphere of influence in the region. The Kingdom is very much vulnerable to becoming a pawn of major power politics if foreign policy is not managed carefully. The evolving geopolitical dynamics thus demands that Cambodian leaders be more adaptive, flexible, resilient, and pragmatic.
As geopolitical risks and vulnerabilities rise further, Cambodia’s foreign policy options could be more constrained. The strategic space for Cambodia to manoeuver is getting narrower. Once geopolitical power rivalry becomes clear-cut and all-out, Cambodia could lose its balance and would be structurally forced to hop on the bandwagon of a major power for its survival.
At the moment, Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multilateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.
Hedging is the best strategic option for Cambodia, especially in dealing with uncertainty. However, implementing this strategy is a huge challenge. It requires strategic articulation on certain issues and strategic ambiguity on others. Even sometimes it requires to have contradictory views on certain issues but it must be implemented smartly in order not to lose trust with any major power.
The key challenge now for Cambodia is how it could gain trust from all major powers. At the moment, Cambodia’s relations with the US faces a serious trust deficit. It is urgent that Cambodia and the US find common grounds and explore innovative pathways to restore trust and normalize their bilateral relationship.
Economic pragmatism, strategic diversification, a denial to a regional hegemonic power, and regime legitimization are the key components of a hedging strategy. Asean as a regional grouping is an important shield for Cambodia and the group’s other members to neutralize and cushion the adverse effects created by rivalry between the major powers.
Yet Asean faces the risk of being marginalized by two competing institutional frameworks – China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-initiated Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Unless Asean member states are able to stay united and forge a common foreign policy position, they risk becoming the proxy states of major powers. Consequently, the region will be divided into two diametric poles: the pro-China camp versus the pro-US camp.
To avert these risks, Asean must be more innovative and adopt a bolder approach to protect common regional interests. Just playing it safe and keeping a low profile is not a solution. Asean must be bold enough to stand up against any major power that intends to build its hegemonic power in the region at the expense of the core interests of its member countries.
Cambodia is of the view that Asean-driven multilateral institutions and mechanisms play a critical role in constructing an open and inclusive regional order that can accommodate all major powers. Asean is widely regarded as the main vehicle for its members to engage and integrate major powers, and hopefully shape the behaviour of major powers.
Engaging major powers is a viable strategic option for small states. Engagement is a means to integration. Small states like Cambodia can partially contribute to constructing an international order by engaging and integrating major powers into a rules-based international system and getting them to assume responsible leadership role in multilateral institutions.
Chheang Vannarith is a board member and senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).