Amid shifting global power dynamics and intense pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy in the coming years will aim to diversify its external relations, with a focus on South and East Asian countries. But in practice Cambodia still struggles to implement an effective foreign policy, stymied by institutional weaknesses. Without much-needed reform, Cambodia’s weak international presence may persist.
A rumour that China is eyeing a naval base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province stirred public debate both inside and outside the country. Despite strident denials by Cambodia, US Vice President Mike Pence raised concerns directly with Prime Minister Hun Sen on the issue.
The Cambodian government has repeatedly stressed that it does not intend to align with any major power, nor will it ever allow any foreign military base on its soil, because it adheres to a foreign policy stance of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Despite these assurances, international media and observers still tend to portray Cambodia as a client state of China.
Such perceptions, which do not reflect the entirety of Cambodia’s foreign policy dynamics, damage the country’s international image and role.
The tough measures taken by the European Union (EU) and the United States on Cambodia’s perceived ‘democratic backsliding’ partly reflect their own strategic interest in ensuring that Cambodia does not align itself too closely with China.
Cambodia’s foreign policy options constrained
Facing unprecedented pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy options are constrained. There is a shared belief among Cambodia’s ruling elites that the EU and the United States have double standards and treat Cambodia unfairly.
They question why the EU and the US target Cambodia, while Vietnam and Thailand still enjoy good relations with the West. And they question why Cambodia is attacked for forging close ties with China when other Southeast Asian countries are doing the same.
Such external circumstances force Cambodia to invest heavily in foreign policy. During the 41st Party Congress of the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in December 2018, foreign policy was highlighted as an area requiring more attention.
Cambodia’s foreign policy outlook is shaped by the unfolding power shifts in the Asia Pacific region and the implications of major power rivalry.
As the world becomes a multipolar one, Cambodia is adjusting its foreign policy objectives and strategies accordingly. In this new world order, Cambodia’s ruling elites believe that the country’s foreign policy direction cannot be detached from that of the Asian powers.
China, Japan, Asean
Phnom Penh has signed only two strategic partnerships so far: one with China in 2010 and another with Japan in 2013. Cambodia views China and Japan as among its most important strategic partners, and ones that can be relied on to help Cambodia realise its vision of becoming a higher middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050.
Cambodia also gives strategic importance to Asean as crucial to furthering regional integration and helping Southeast Asian countries cushion against foreign intervention.
Diversifying strategic and economic partners has occupied Cambodian foreign policymakers for years.
A lack of coordination among the relevant ministries — such as the Ministry of Foreign and International Cooperation (MFAIC), Ministry of Commerce (MOC), Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF), Ministry of National Defence (MND), and the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) — remains a significant issue preventing Cambodia from achieving its diversification strategy. These ministries need to work together to implement a more robust foreign policy.
There is strong political will on the part of MFAIC to develop and implement a more robust foreign economic policy, but other government agencies do not seem prepared to come onboard.
MFAIC has taken a leadership role in negotiating the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) initiative with the EU, for instance, but this should ideally be done by the MOC.
Cambodia’s ruling elites are aware of the risks emanating from overreliance on a single or few countries for their survival. Hedging and diversification are recognised as important strategies, but implementation remains an issue.
It will take a few more years for Cambodia to develop a concrete action plan, build institutional and leadership capacity, and strengthen institutional coordination and synergies between ministries.
The United States and the EU should demonstrate more flexibility towards Cambodia to avoid the perception of unfair treatment. They should provide Cambodia with more options instead of forcing it to compromise its sovereignty. Multi-layered, multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder engagement should be encouraged. As a small country, Cambodia needs expanded strategic space to maneuver.
This article was written by Chheang Vannarith, a senior fellow and Member of the Board at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. It first appeared on East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons License and is reproduced here with its permission.
Feature photo Samdech Hun Sen Facebook page
- Cambodian leader, in Beijing, says China pledges nearly US$600 million in aid (Channel NewsAsia)
- US Follows EU in Reviewing Cambodia’s Preferential Trade Treatment in Light of Alleged Abuses (VOA Cambodia)
- Business community expresses concern over EBA withdrawal (Khmer Times)
- PM warns EU and opposition on 34th anniversary of his rule (The phnom Penh Post)
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