The Cambodian government, under the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is striving to adjust its foreign policy and adapt itself to the fast-changing global geopolitics and geo-economics.
Addressing the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly last Friday, Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn underlined two key terms: multipolar world and complex interdependence.
“Today, our multipolar world has gained its prominence in global affairs, causing chaos and turbulence as competition between the major powers is becoming more confrontational,” Mr Sokhonn said.
“We are more interdependent, but more unequal; we are more prosperous, and yet millions are inflicted with poverty,” he added.
In terms of the global economic system, there are more than two growth poles. A growth pole refers to an economy that significantly drives global growth, mainly through international trade and investment, capital flows and the spillover effects of innovation, technology and knowledge.
Emerging economies, especially BRICS economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, are transforming the global economy. The Asia Pacific region has become the centre of gravity of the world economy.
The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the new engine of an emerging new global economic order. The BRI will also significantly affect the global geopolitical landscape. The question is time. How long will it take China to realise this grand strategy to project its global power?
Global power shifts or transitions, as historical facts have shown, usually lead to conflicts or wars. According to the “Thucydides Trap” theory, it is forecast that China, the rising power, and the US, the status-quo power, will inevitably clash.
How can the “Thucydides Trap” be avoided? China has proposed “a new type of major power relations”, but it failed to convince the US. Trust deficit is the main stumbling block in China-US bilateral ties.
The West is relatively declining. The two black swan events, the Brexit vote in the UK in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump to the White House in the US in November 2016, have damaged the global role and image of the West.
The Western values of liberal democracy are adversely affected as well. President Trump has attacked the freedom of the press by calling them “fake news” and alleged some journalists as “truly dishonest people”.
Rising protectionism and inward-looking political leadership puts the future of the West in an uncertain and dangerous path. Widening socio-economic inequality is partially due to the implementation of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, in which corporate governance is focusing on shareholders, not stakeholders.
Amidst global power shifts, Cambodia is softly going with China, while slightly hedging through a strategic and economic diversification strategy. The good Cambodia-Japan partnership is a case in point explaining Cambodia’s hedging strategy.
There are three reasons explaining Cambodia’s view of China. First, China gives a core “back up” to Cambodia’s ruling elites to counterbalance the pressures from the US and its allies relating to democracy and human rights.
The ruling CPP gives priority to output legitimacy, which is defined in terms of peace, political stability and economic growth than input legitimacy, which is defined in terms of free and fair elections and people’s participation.
Hence the ideals of liberal democracy as understood and practiced by the West are deemed not yet appropriate for Cambodia. Power politics, the survival of the fittest, remain the characteristics of Cambodian politics
Second, Cambodia stands to benefit from China’s economic powerhouse, especially in infrastructure development, foreign direct investment, tourism and trade. China is now the top donor and investor in the kingdom.
Third, China offers an effective balancing force against two big neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam – which are perceived as “historic predators”.
Cambodia “views its immediate neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand, as historic predators of Khmer territories, and China as playing a pivotal role in ensuring its own survival”, wrote Edgar Pang, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Similarly, Terrence Chong, from the same institute, argues that “Cambodia’s fear that Vietnam and Thailand’s growing economic superiority will threaten its sovereignty has been a key reason for its embrace of China”.
Cambodia believes that complex interdependence, especially economic interdependence, will prevent major powers from going to war. Economic interest is the most decisive factor in foreign policy formation.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said in 2015: “Relations between the US and China are extremely important for the Asia-Pacific. Washington and Beijing are conscious of their complex interdependency and have been building mechanisms across their bilateral relationship to help manage their relations.”
Cambodia also stresses the critical role of Asean in maintaining regional peace and order by strengthening regional multilateral institutions and cooperation. Maintaining and strengthening the central role of Asean in shaping the evolving regional architecture serves regional common interests.
“Cambodia will continue to join hands with all Asean member states in the common endeavour to strengthen the community that is highly integrated, resilient, inclusive, people-oriented and people-centered for the sake of peace and prosperity of our region and the world at large,” wrote Mr Sokhonn in August this year.
Cambodia’s worldview can be understood as the following: First, a multipolar world is in the making. Second, the West is declining and the global power balance is shifting in favour of emerging economies, especially China.
Third, complex interdependence is the foundation of peace given it restrains major powers from going to war against each other. Fourth, multilateral institutions, especially Asean, play a crucial role in maintaining peace and promoting prosperity.
Chheang Vannarith is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.