Early last week, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made an introductory official visit to Cambodia to further enhance comprehensive bilateral ties, especially in trade, investment, tourism, human resources development, culture, air connectivity, labour and healthcare.
Mr Balakrishnan was received in a royal audience by His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni and called on Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said he appreciated the long-standing relationship between the two countries, which has been fostered for generations.
He also met Aun Porn Moniroth, the Minister of Economy and Finance, over tea and attended a dinner hosted by Say Samal, the Minister of Environment.
At the working session with foreign minister Prak Sokhonn, the foreign ministers exchanged views on relations and international issues.
Both sides signed an agreement on political consultations to further enhance bilateral trust and cooperation.
Cambodia has asked Singapore to consider importing agricultural products such as rice, pepper and mangoes, to welcome more migrant workers from Cambodia and to cooperate on the illicit trade of cultural property.
Both sides also expressed their satisfaction with the petroleum agreement for offshore oil field development in Block A between Cambodia and Singapore company KrisEnergy, while expanding investment opportunities in other potential areas.
Singapore has significantly contributed to human resources development and capacity-building programmes under the framework of the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI) – the IAI aims to narrow the development disparity between the Asean member states.
In 2002, the Cambodia-Singapore Training Center was established to provide capacity building support to Cambodian government officials. More than 12,000 officials have been trained under the Singapore Cooperation Programme.
Singapore is an old friend of Cambodia. These two small states share similar sources of vulnerability and threats. They both believe in multilateralism and Asean, but with different degrees of institutional capacity and leadership. Both pursue a pragmatic foreign policy and hedging strategy, but at varying degrees.
“Our economic links are robust and growing. Singapore is one of Cambodia’s key trading partners with over $1.1 billion in total trade in 2015,” wrote Singapore Ambassador to Cambodia Michael Tan in August last year.
The ties have been nurtured by high-level visits and exchanges. Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Singapore twice in 2015, to attend Lee Kuan Yew’s state funeral and the SG50 National Day parade.
Tony Tan Keng Yam, the then President of Singapore, visited Cambodia in January this year. During his visit, two agreements were signed, including the renewal of the working relationship between Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Cambodia’s Calmette Hospital and cooperation on training between Singapore’s ITE Education Services and the Cambodian Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training.
Last year, Cambodian Minister of National Defence Tea Banh and Minister of Environment Mr Samal visited Singapore.
Singapore will assume its rotating chairmanship of Asean next year, and gaining political trust and support from the other nine Asean member states on regional issues is indispensible to reach consensus.
Economic cooperation will be the priority of Singapore’s chair of Asean next year. Aiming to be the hub for regional digital connectivity, Singapore is interested in promoting regional dialogue and cooperation on the digital economy and digital connectivity.
Digital inclusion needs to be taken into consideration while promoting a digital economy and digital connectivity. Regional cooperation on capacity building in this area thus needs to be further strengthened.
The South China Sea dispute and North Korean issue will remain regional security flashpoints and the main sources of regional tensions and confrontation.
Divergent interests and different approaches towards the South China Sea have been a threat to Asean unity and centrality.
Cambodia and Singapore have different views on the South China Sea issue.
For instance, last year Singapore urged respect for the award on the South China Sea by calling all parties concerned to “fully respect legal and diplomatic processes”, while Cambodia did not support the court ruling.
Mr Hun Sen stated in June 2016: “This is not about laws, it is totally about politics. I will not support any judgment by the court…the case was a political conspiracy between some countries and the court.”
Although Cambodia and Singapore have a slightly different foreign policy vision and objective, both countries share a common view that strengthening Asean-centric regional architecture is the most viable way to maintain regional peace and prosperity.
Asean unity and centrality therefore are critical to the future of the region. The Asean member states should not allow their differences to damage Asean’s credibility and its international role.
A sound partnership between Cambodia and Singapore contributes to the realisation of an Asean community.
Singapore, the most vibrant economy in Asean, should provide more capacity building support to the new Asean members and assist them in catching up with other members and further grasp the opportunities derived from regional integration.
Vannarith Chheang is a Southeast Asian analyst based in Singapore and Phnom Penh.