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The Asian century and Cambodia’s diplomacy

Chheang Vannarith / Share:
An Asean-driven regional order serves the best interests of the Asean member states as well as those of Asean dialogue partners, given that Asean is pursuing open and inclusive multilateralism. Xinhua

Economic success at home will define Cambodia’s role and leverage abroad. Therefore, foreign economic diplomacy is regarded as the key pillar of Cambodia’s foreign policy, argues Chheang Vannarith.

Cambodia’s foreign policy is adapting to a fast-changing geopolitical landscape in the world and the region. Speaking at the annual conference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MOFAIC) yesterday, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn stressed that the world is in high-speed transition to a multipolar world, resulting in complexity and unpredictability. The heightening geopolitical competition between major powers have significant impacts on global geopolitics, geo-economics, security and technology.

Asean will continue to be a success story of regional integration and connectivity as well as a theatre of geopolitical rivalry, he added. Cambodia needs to be strong, adaptive and resilient to survive and thrive in a fast-evolving new world order. Meritocracy has been recognised as the key human resource strategy to strengthen institutional and diplomatic capacity of the Kingdom.

The annual conference aims to seek policy inputs from senior diplomats and experts to help Cambodia navigate through turbulent and uncertain times ahead. It also seeks an exchange of ideas on how could Cambodia could ride the tide of the Asian century.

The twenty-first century is the Asian century in which China, India, Japan, and Asean are the four main economic powerhouses that will enable regional economic dynamism through the promotion of regional economic integration and connectivity. Asean is predicted to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030 after the United States, China, and the European Union.

The Asian Development Bank predicts that by 2050 Asia will double its share of global domestic product to 52 percent. It is argued that, “Asia would regain the dominant economic position it held 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution”. If this projection is true, then the Asian century is real and promising. To realise that vision, Asian countries need to overcome some structural challenges such as inequality, climate change, and poor governance.

The conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will boost regional supply chains and production networks. Asean plays a central role in shaping the evolving regional architecture. An Asean-driven regional order serves the best interests of the Asean member states as well as those of Asean dialogue partners, given that Asean is pursuing open and inclusive multilateralism. All global powers are dialogue partners of Asean and the strength of Asean depends on how it can manage its relationships with all major powers and to earn its centrality role in shaping and moulding regional architecture.

Evolving grand strategic initiatives, such as the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), provide both opportunities and challenges for Asian countries. On the one hand, both initiatives will further strengthen regional integration and connectivity and build the foundations to sustain economic dynamism. On the other hand, these two initiatives are strategically competitive in nature. Both China and the US will invest more financial and strategic resources in concretizing their multilateral initiatives. The geopolitical and geo-economic implications of these two initiatives are beyond the region.

While the economic outlook of Asia is positive and promising, the geopolitical risks and uncertainties are mounting due to heightening geopolitical competition between external powers. Southeast Asia is on the cusp of becoming a new centre of major power competition. The tug-of-war between China and the US in Southeast Asia will intensify. Small states in Southeast Asia are adjusting and adapting to geopolitical changes in order to maintain their balance.

To grasp the opportunities of a dynamic Asia and ride the tide of the Asian century, Cambodia needs to be competitive and agile. Economic pragmatism is the key characteristic of Cambodia’s foreign policy. The key question is how to transform the external environment into a source of national development. As a small and open economy, Cambodia has benefitted from an open, inclusive, and rules-based international order. Therefore, Cambodia will continue to enhance international institutions and a rules-based international system.

A stable regional environment and mutually-beneficial international cooperation is key to Cambodia’s development success. Cambodia’s development partners, including both bilateral and multilateral donor agencies, have substantially contributed to Cambodia’s socio-economic development over the decades. Moreover, regional integration has helped Cambodia to accelerate its institutional and legal reforms in order to comply with international standards set by Asean. Cambodia is committed to building an Asean-centered regional architecture and connectivity.

Geo-strategically located in the middle of the Mekong Region, a new growth centre as well as an emerging strategic frontier of Asia, Cambodia has ambitions to become a bridging state in the region. To realise such a vision, Cambodia has taken proactive approaches such as establishing the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) and has been actively participating in sub-regional cooperation mechanisms in the Mekong region.

Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. Domestic strength and national development success define Cambodia’s international role and image. Peace and stability over the last two decades have enabled Cambodia to concentrate on human resource development and infrastructure development. Cambodia has a young, dynamic workforces that can sustain high economic performance for the coming decades. International cooperation and partnership on capacity building and innovation are essential for Cambodia’s future.

Human capital and critical infrastructure development have been identified as the catalysts for Cambodia to maintain its growth momentum and to overcome the middle-income trap. The Industrial Policy 2015-2025 is a critical tool for moving the country’s development ladder from labour-intensive industries to a skills-based economy. Building synergies between national development strategies and multilateral initiatives at the regional and sub-regional levels will enable Cambodia to materialise its development vision.

Other challenges are how Cambodia can stay neutral and independent within the context of increasing geo-strategic rivalry, maintain its vibrant economy in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and advance its national interests. Hedging strategy has been implemented but it needs to be further articulated in both narratives and concrete actions. Cambodia needs to accelerate reforms and build infrastructure to realise its development vision 2030 and 2050. Economic success at home will define Cambodia’s role and leverage abroad. Therefore, foreign economic diplomacy is regarded as the key pillar of Cambodia’s foreign policy.

Chheang Vannarith is president of Asian Vision Institute, based in Phnom Penh.


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