Amidst the fast-evolving multipolar world order, Cambodia’s foreign policy is purportedly encountered with either challenges or opportunities which requires foreign policy makers to strike a good balance and maneuver a flexibly diplomatic statecraft.
In the absence of carefully crafted foreign policy and grand strategy, Cambodia risks being a pawn of great power politics.
Since 1998 which saw complete national integration and reconciliation, Cambodia has emerged from a war-torn state to witness an uninterrupted and unprecedented economic growth of 7 percent annually, while poverty rate has been reduced to below 10%.
The country reached a lower-middle income status in 2016 and aims to become upper-middle income status by 2030 and high-income country by 2050. To realize these goals, Cambodia needs a smart and flexible diplomacy.
Given heightening major power rivalry, there seems less room for Cambodia to maneuver. Cambodia’s foreign policy, hence, needs to be robust, inward and outward looking, and strategically formulated to adhere to self-help, protection of sovereignty, and diversification.
Learning from the past experiences, Cambodia is cautious of and sensitive to foreign interference. The common value for Cambodians from all generations is that nothing is more valuable than sovereignty and independence.
Cambodia’s modern diplomacy is moving on the right direction to prevent foreign interventions and strengthen national resilience. Reducing dependency syndrome on foreign aids and donors could recalibrate national strengths through self-reliance and economic diversification.
Making friends outside and strengthening institutional capacity are the right decisions of Cambodia’s current foreign policy to thrive and prosper in the fast-changing regional and global geopolitics.
Domestic politics define foreign policy. Different political parties and interest groups have different worldview and foreign policy strategy and tactical approaches. History clearly informs us that the internal and political fragmentation invites external meddling, which normally leads to the decaying of sovereignty.
It is therefore necessary to forge national reconciliation and unity by putting national interests ahead of political party and group interests. As a driver for its own destiny, Cambodia needs to own its development model and foreign objectives and strategy, free from external interference.
Cambodians should be wary that national sovereignty has been served as a bulwark and shield to safeguard the country’s diplomatic interest against geopolitical uncertainties.
Regional rising powers and extra-regional powers give rise to fierce competition in the Asia Pacific region, which can place Cambodia in a security dilemma. But if the Kingdom can flexibly maneuver to transform these challenges to a source of national economic development, it would be much beneficial.
Thus, diversifying diplomatic relations based on the calculation of economic interests and peaceful coexistence shall remain the Kingdom’s key strategy. Cambodia is obliged to maintain and diversify external relations with the outside worlds both on bilateral and multilateral platforms, by cultivating our cultural and economic diplomacy.
Cultural and economic diplomacy are also becoming key pillars of Cambodia’s contemporary foreign policy. For cultural diplomacy, Cambodia should grasp opportunities to take a leading role in soft power politics and identity-image building.
In January 2019, the launch of ACC (Asian Cultural Council) whose headquarter is in Cambodia obviously underscores that the Kingdom has taken a proactive role in preserving Asian cultural heritages. More importantly, the ACC aims to transform cultural diversity into a source of durable peace, inclusiveness and sustainable development.
Adapting itself to be a point of intersection or a cultural bridge between Asian civilizations, Cambodia could further promote its international role and national prestige through international cultural exchanges, tourism exchanges, and people-to-people ties.
Regarding the economic diplomacy, Cambodia reserves a good position to align regional and sub-regional architecture initiatives with its Rectangular Strategy Phase IV to realize sustainable and resilient economic growth.
In terms of trade liberalization and facilitation under various regional initiatives, Cambodia can pinch this golden chance to modernize its economy. In the course of pivotal economic gravity to Asia-Pacific region, intensive and fervent competition between many regional architecture projects like Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), FOIPS (Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy) provide Cambodia with a strategic position to enjoy the benefits from vibrant trade liberalization and facilitation measures.
As a member of Asean, Cambodia is supportive of regional initiatives that bring about inclusive, rules-based, and mutually beneficial cooperation. Furthermore, Asean will remain a cornerstone of Cambodia’s diplomacy.
Forging synergies between Asean-led regional mechanisms such as the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) and other regional or sub-regional cooperation initiatives like Mekong-related cooperation is critical for the Kingdom to transform these institutional projects into a source of national benefits and sustainable economic development.
Samath Chan Somanith is Undergraduate student at the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh and an intern at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.