Strategically located at the center of the Mekong Region and Southeast Asia, Cambodia has great potential to become a bridging state in the region and strengthen its leadership role within Asean and other sub-regional institutions, argues Chheang Vannarith.
Small states such as Cambodia have fewer foreign policy options, given the narrowing strategic space for small states to manoeuver. In such a transitional period, Cambodia has to adjust and adapt in order to survive and thrive.
Foreign policy is not only the extension of domestic politics but also the adaptation to external dynamics. Cambodia’s worldview is dynamic – it continues to observe the main trends of regional and global politics, from which multiple futures can be formed.
Cambodia’s foreign policy has been robustly reformed over the past three years, especially in capacity building and strategic analysis. We have established the National Institute for Diplomacy and International Relations (NIDIR) to equip diplomats with analytical as well as soft skills. We need a few more years to see the fruits of this capacity-building programme.
The basic guiding principles of Cambodia’s foreign policy are permanent neutrality, non-alignment, peaceful co-existence, non-interference, no military alliances or military pacts, and no foreign military bases on its soil. The tenets of Cambodia’s foreign policy objectives are economic development and poverty reduction, peace and security, cultural identity, and the national role in the global community.
How to transform the regional and international environment into a source of national development has been the priority of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodia has been promoting an open and inclusive international economic multilateral system that is based on international laws and norms.
As a small and open economy, Cambodia is very much connected with other economies, relying on external markets and the inflow of foreign capital and technology. Hence, Cambodia is committed to upholding economic multilateralism through promoting a rules-based international order. Towards this, reforming and making the World Trade Organization (WTO) more relevant to both developed and developing countries is critically important to save the global trading system.
Asean is the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy as it provides an important shield to protect the sovereignty and independence of its member states, whilst also mitigating and filtering interference from major powers. As long as Asean members stay united to protect each other’s interests, I believe that Asean can navigate through uncertain and challenging times ahead. Cambodia has largely benefitted from Asean’s economic integration, although the development gap remains an issue.
Within the context of contestation in the Asia Pacific region, the best scenario of a regional order, from the Cambodian perspective, would be an Asean-driven regional order. Neither a US-centric regional order nor Sino-centric regional order will make our region stable. Only Asean can ensure that regional cooperation and integration remain on track, although at a slow pace. Consultation and consensus, non-interference, and equal sovereignty are the norms that need to be nurtured.
National role perception
The perception of Cambodia’s national role does matter in foreign policy. Cambodia aims to become a peace contributor, civilization connector, and a bridging state in the Mekong region and Asean. In terms of contribution to peace, Cambodia has contributed more than 5,000 troops under the framework of the United Nations to various conflict zones. Currently, we have 810 troops conducting missions in four countries, including South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, and Lebanon.
This month, Cambodia hosted the launch of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) with the aim to further connect civilisations in Asia and beyond. Building synergies between cultural diversity and sustainable development, peace, connectivity, and innovation is a new era of Cambodia’s cultural diplomacy, which is more proactive and dynamic. Cambodia has more to contribute to the Asian century under the framework of the ACC.
Strategically located at the center of the Mekong Region and Southeast Asia, Cambodia has great potential to become a bridging state in the region. To realise this vision, Cambodia needs to build its democratic governance to become a source of inspiration for other regional countries, strengthen its leadership role within Asean and other sub-regional institutions, and maintain trust and good relations with all Asian powers, especially China, India, and Japan.
Cambodia’s foreign policy will become more robust in response to fast-changing regional and global geopolitics. We have only one choice: adapt or be left behind. Cambodia must adapt itself to an evolving World Order as well as the contest to establish a new regional order in the Asia-Pacific. We need to be steadfast and stay ahead of the curve in our foreign policy strategic vision and tactical approaches. Capacity building and human capital are even more critical. Cambodia needs to invest more in research capacity in order to have more informed foreign policy making and develop a new generation of professional diplomats who are capable of analyzing international trends and building trust and friendship around the globe.
To fill the research capacity gap, Asian Vision Institute (AVI) is founded to conduct academic and policy researches in order to inform policy makers and stakeholders in Cambodia and the region. Multi-stakeholder dialogues on national and international issues need to be encouraged as Cambodia is looking for innovative ideas and solutions. AVI, by connecting people, knowledge and actions in Asia, can help Cambodia to ride the tide of the Asian century.
Chheang Vannarith is president of Asian Vision Institute