Prime Minister Hun Sen’s official visits to Lao PDR and Vietnam last week signifies a new era in Cambodia’s foreign policy priorities with more focus on immediate neighbors and traditional friends in Indochina, in the midst of rising geopolitical uncertainties in the region. The main achievements of the visit are not only reflected in the number of bilateral agreements signed but more importantly the reassurance of traditional friendship and the cultivation of personal relationship between the leaders.
The leaders have reassured each other the resilience and maintenance of strategic trust and partnership although there is unpredictability in the fast-changing geopolitical
landscape in the region and the world at large. They hold a firm conviction that this tripartite unity would offer mutual support to one another and together Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam would be able to navigate through uncertain times ahead, and thrive to realise their common interests.
The main outstanding, complex issue between Cambodia and its neighbors is the differences over border negotiation and demarcation, which sometimes – unfortunately – leads to border tensions. Cambodia has requested border maps from France to resolve the remaining border issue with both Lao PDR and Vietnam. Cambodia’s position is to reach a conclusion of the common border demarcation as soon as possible in order to completely transform the border regions into zones of peace, friendship, neutrality, and development.
If the current generation of leaders cannot complete the border demarcation, it will be a heavy burden for the future generation of leaders to deal with. The future leaders of the three countries do not share such common revolutionary memory, deep trust and friendship as the current leaders do. It will be hard to maintain the strength of the tripartite relationship embraced and nurtured by the current leaders. Therefore, the current leaders should pave the way, strengthen multi-layered mechanisms, and build a bridge of trust among the three countries.
Looking forward, Cambodia will continue to maintain a strong traditional friendship with its neighbors in order to realise a truly Asean community based on common interests. Small states in Southeast Asia are fully aware of the risks emanating from geopolitical rivalry and they will strengthen unity within the Asean family to fend off the intentions of major powers to intervene into the domestic affairs of Southeast Asian countries and use small nations as proxies for their power contestation.
Asean must be bolder to protect the sovereignty and independence of its member states against foreign interference. The bottom line is if we don’t hang together we will be hanged separately. The survival of the small states in Southeast Asia depends on how Asean can strengthen its centrality role in shaping the evolving regional architecture. Promoting a rules-based international system and an Asean-driven regional order will serve the common interests of regional countries.
Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam need to work closer together to strengthen Asean norms and international laws in resolving differences and advancing together towards the realisation of an Asean community. The Cambodia-Lao PDR-Vietnam Development Triangle is an important sub-regional economic cooperation mechanism in the Mekong region and Asean. Fulfilling the objectives set in the programmes and action plans of the Triangle Development framework will not only serve the interests of the three nations but the whole Asean community.
International development partners should pay closer attention to the development of the Triangle, especially through the development of hard and soft infrastructure to further connect the border regions of the three countries. Cambodia has made efforts to attract investments along the border areas in order to generate more job opportunities for local people along the border, thus contributing to narrowing the development gaps within the country and the region. However, the results have been quite limited.
In addition to development along the border areas, building the bridge of trust and friendship for future leaders at both the national and local levels is a long-term investment which requires long-term strategic planning and significant investment in human resource development. People-to-people ties among the three countries are essential for the sustainability of the trilateral partnership.
Educational and cultural exchanges between Cambodia and its neighbors need to be strengthened. Cambodia will bear more responsibility in promoting cultural exchanges, linking culture with peace and sustainable development in Asia. The establishment of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), which will be officially launched in January next year will mark a new era of Cambodia’s cultural and neighborhood diplomacy, further strengthening geographical linkages and traditional friendship.