The new decade started with increased tensions in relations between world powers which threaten peace. How will this affect Cambodia’s foreign policy?
Khmer Times speaks to Chheang Vannarith, president of Asian Vision Institute, to gain insight into the situation.
KT: Before we discuss 2020, can you give a quick insight into Cambodia’s foreign policy in 2019?
Mr Vannarith: Regarding the health of the country’s foreign relations, we have seen progress, especially considering the roles of Cambodia on the international stage. Cambodia had contributed to multilateralism by playing an active role in Asean and attending a number of multiparty conferences.
Last year saw strong bilateral ties between Cambodia and Eastern-European countries, which were old allies and partners of the Kingdom during the State of Cambodia regime. Cambodia was looking to restore these historic relations as well as [boost] relations with some countries in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan.
We also noticed an improvement in parliamentary diplomacy, as seen when Cambodia’s National Assembly hosted the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum in Siem Reap early last year. Cambodia has shown focus on its cultural role, which is the greatest strength in the country’s diplomacy, through its position as an honorary founder of the Asian Cultural Council in January 2019. In the same year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs showed great effort in improving economic diplomacy, which is relatively new […] and very important to economic development.
KT: What about relations with the United States, China, Japan and Vietnam in 2019? Can you share your insight on relations with those countries?
Mr Vannarith: As a small country, Cambodia has fewer choices and less influence. Between a small gap, Cambodia had to navigate carefully and hold a coordinating role to overcome hurdles. Looking at Cambodia’s relations with those countries, we can see that Cambodia has been trying to create a balance through many tri-party relations. In the past, Cambodia was accused of being “pro-Chinese” and “China’s puppet”, which were baseless allegations.
KT: What are the weaknesses in Cambodia’s diplomacy?
Mr Vannarith: One of those is human resources. It could be very hard to attract talent to work for the state since government officials’ salaries are lower than those of employees working in the private sector. The government needs to invest more into human capital, especially through the creation of strategic research groups, which can allow high-probability forecasts not only in diplomacy but in all affairs.
KT: In 2019, how flexible was Cambodia in its relations with prominent partners such as the US and China?
Mr Vannarith: In terms of flexibility, Cambodia acted quickly and on time in its relation with the US. However, in a good bilateral relationship, both parties have to show good faith. Cambodia has always shown good faith with the US. Through the new ambassador Patrick Murphy, greater positivity has been shown. That is a good sign for the bilateral relationship since it was previously characterised by tension and lack of mutual understanding. We hope this will continue [in 2020].
KT: Can you see any reason behind the change in the US’ attitude toward Cambodia?
Mr Vannarith: China is a key [motivating] factor in American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The increase of China’s sphere of influence in the region motivates the US to soften its stance. The US may have noticed that using the “stick” is not effective with Cambodia, so it chooses to use the “carrot” instead.
KT: How do you see foreign policy in 2020?
Mr Vannarith: By strictly following the constitution, Cambodia has a firm stance. The constitution, laid out 1993, clearly states the principles for good governance and foreign policy, and no one can change it easily.
What is important is how [constitutional] principles are put into action and how messages are shown to avoid misunderstanding and achieve a balance. Secondly, [what is important] is diversification in strategic partnerships in terms of trade, investment and security.
The talks on a free trade agreement with China and South Korea will continue this year, and more talks with other countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Germany and others could also be coming. The more strategic partners we have, the better our stance in the foreign policy becomes — not to mention that we can reduce the risk posed by relying too heavily on one or only a few partners.
KT: In 2020, are you seeing any powerful partner putting pressure on Cambodia to follow its will or to be on its side?
Mr Vannarith: If a country puts too much pressure on Cambodia, it will lose opportunities and break mutual trust. A smart country would not put too much pressure on Cambodia, and it needs to respect Cambodia’s national interest, sovereignty and independence. Meanwhile, Cambodia can use multilateralism as a shield against pressure […]. Asean is an example of this shield – which strengthens Cambodia’s bargaining power.
However, it also depends on the competition for power. Competition in 2020 is likely to decrease because the US is getting its hands full with its Middle East affairs. The US is likely to lower its competitiveness in Southeast Asia. It also needs China in persuading North Korea to stop testing nuclear weapons and long-distance missiles. The rising tension in the South China Sea dispute could also be something that draws US attention.