The Making of Cambodia’s Foreign Policy

Khmer Times, 22 May 2014

Within the context of increasing regional tensions and unpredictability, Cambodia’s foreign policy becomes more essential. It even determines the future development of the country. Without having a right decision and direction in foreign policy making, it risks becoming a pawn of geopolitical game between major powers. History informs us that without national unity and neutrality, we fall into war and conflict.

To understand any country’s foreign policy, it needs at least to comprehend the basic conditionality and shaping factors. For Cambodia its foreign policy is rooted in geopolitical realities (relations with its neighbours), nationalism, historical memories (anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism), and economic condition. It is shaped by domestic politics, leadership changes, and externalities. The current leadership views foreign policy as a tool to serve Cambodian national economic development. But it needs to be more visionary, robust and strategically calculated. As a small country, Cambodia has to survive in, be part of, and emerge from the complex and unpredictable global security and economic systems. To do that, it has to be totally independent, neutral, self-reliant, and forward-outward looking.

In principle, Cambodia’s foreign policy centres on the principles of neutrality, non-alliance, and peaceful co-existence. As stipulated in the constitution, there are six principles. First, Cambodia adopts a policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Second, it follows a policy of peaceful co-existence with its neighbours and with all other countries throughout the world. Third, it shall not invade any country, nor interfere in any other country’s internal affairs, directly or indirectly, and shall solve any problem peacefully with due respect for mutual interest. Fourth, it shall not join in any military alliance or military pact which is incompatible with its policy of neutrality. Fifth, it shall not permit any foreign military base on its territory and shall not have its own military base abroad, except within the framework of a United Nations request. Sixth, it reserves the right to receive foreign assistance in military equipment, armaments, ammunition, in training of its armed forces, and other assistance for self-defence, to maintain public order and security within its territory.

Historically, however, Cambodia failed to uphold these principles due to changing national and international circumstances and complexities. Cambodia fell into the Indochina War in late 1960s. From 1970 to 1991, the power politics of major powers overshadowed and dominated Cambodian domestic politics and foreign policy. It totally lost its independence and neutrality. The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of conflict settlement and peace building in Cambodia, which led to the signing of Paris Peace accord on 23 October 1991.

After the general election in 1993 under the auspices of the United Nations, national sovereignty and independence were restored. National economic development and poverty reduction became the core objective of foreign policy and international cooperation. From 1999, especially after becoming an official member of ASEAN, Cambodia’s foreign policy focuses on ASEAN, major development partners, and international institutions.

There are four core national interests defined in the contemporary Cambodia’s foreign policy: sovereignty and territorial integrity, security and political stability, economic development and poverty reduction, and identity-image building. Located between the two big neighbours (Thailand and Vietnam), the question of sovereignty and territorial integrity historically and geopolitically is at the core of both domestic politics and foreign policy. However, after joining ASEAN and the increasing economic interdependence and cultural exchanges between Cambodia and its neighbours, such threat perception toward its neighbours gradually diminish.

As for the factors shaping Cambodia’s foreign policy, internal factor is the most important. Domestic political conditions and dynamics directly affect foreign policy. Different political parties and interest groups have different priorities and approaches in directing foreign policy. The two big political parties (CPP and CNRP) have different interests and objectives in the making of foreign policy. Such trends put Cambodia in a more fragile and vulnerable position especially within the context of increasing geopolitical competition between major powers in the Asia-Pacific.

The most challenging task for Cambodia therefore is to develop and strengthen its domestic core, which consists of national unity, social and political consensus, strong democratic institution, and leadership capacity. Without having a strong core together with pragmatism, Cambodia risks being trapped into major powers’ game. The ongoing political deadlock, political polarisation, and social fragmentation are weakening the domestic core and damaging national interest. The whole nation is paying a high price for such political crisis.

Cambodia needs to wake up to grasp opportunities and stand up to the challenges. Global economy is recovering from the financial and economic crisis. The world is getting more interconnected and interdependent. Nation states fall or rise depending on their competitiveness. ASEAN community building process and intra-regional connectivity plan are underway. Sub-regional cooperation schemes and frameworks such as growth triangles, greater Mekong sub-region, and other economic corridors in the Mekong sub-region are picking up steam.

In the meantime, new challenges also emerge. Global inequity and development gap, resources insecurity, unsustainable development, and chronic poverty are some of the global issues requiring global cooperation and solutions. In the Asia-Pacific, structural power competition between major powers (especially between China and the United States and its allies) is threatening regional peace and stability. It creates strategic dilemma for small countries in Southeast Asia particularly Cambodia that is striving to maintain its neutrality and trying to create a regional strategic equilibrium.

What should Cambodia do next? First, it needs to tackle domestic politics through dialogue and negotiation, put national interests ahead of the narrow and short-term interests of the political parties, interest groups, and families. Its foreign policy needs to have a long-term vision with realistic strategic action plans. It needs to promote frequent consultation and debate at the National Assembly on international issues and Cambodian responses. Different political parties should reach a common position on their foreign policy objectives and priority.

Secondly, Cambodia needs to develop a strong research capacity and information analysis related to international complexities, scale up diplomatic professionalism, and cultivate a culture of dialogues among key stakeholders working on international issues. Cambodia needs to develop the quality of research institutes, think tanks, and training programs on international studies. Once capacity and competency are improved, Cambodia has higher chances of transforming the externalities into a source of national development and strength.

Thirdly, Cambodia needs to pursue strategic diversification, support multilateralism, maintain equi-proximate relationships with all major powers, strengthen the centrality role of ASEAN, uphold rules-based international relations, and promote peace through dialogue and negotiation. Cambodia must stay strictly neutral with regard to international sovereignty disputes and conflicts.

Fourthly, Cambodia should explore and develop its own type of soft power. Khmer values are potential sources of soft power projection. It should also explore and develop other diplomatic tools based on humanitarianism such as anti-landmines campaign, humanitarian mine action, United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO), and the promotion of responsibility to protect (RtoP). Importantly, to build good image abroad, Cambodia needs to implant a culture of good governance, respect of human rights, and environmental protection.

The future of Cambodia relies on its strong domestic core and pragmatic foreign policy that can effectively transform the externalities into a source of peace and socio-economic development, turn external challenges into opportunities, and promote Cambodian soft power. To realize its vision to be a middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050, Cambodia has to develop state-of-the-art foreign policy by investing more in building a strong institution with competent leaders, professional diplomats, and strategic thinkers.

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