Cambodia in a complex region

19 May 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Cambodia will be facing more external strategic challenges as a result of fast-changing regional security dynamics. Its foreign policy has to be reviewed to keep pace with the present rate of change of regional politics.
Regional security will grow more uncertain and unpredictable. Securitization and militarization of the South China Sea dispute poses a real security threat to the region. An open armed conflict between the claimants over the disputed water cannot be ruled out given the increase in strategic distrust and tensions.
Cambodia has taken a safe approach towards the South China Sea dispute. Prime Minister Hun Sen has clarified the Cambodian position on the dispute – that it is a bilateral issue between the claimants, and not between Asean and China. 
Early this month, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation reiterated the Cambodian position that “territorial claims in the South China Sea must be settled with countries involved. Asean can’t settle this dispute.”
Another regional challenge results from the growing power competition between China and Japan in Southeast Asia and the Mekong region. Cambodia is at the forefront of this rising strategic competition between these two major economic powers. 
The structural power competition between China and US has spawned region-wide strategic uncertainties. There are different motives and conflicts of interest between the US-led alliance system and China’s new security concept and mechanism. 
To face these external challenges and pressures, Cambodia needs to strengthen its identity, promote national unity, and review foreign policy.
Building National Identity 
Cambodian history and cultural roots are largely related to the legacy of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from ninth to fifteenth century. The Khmer Empire was imprinted with extensive road networks, a complex irrigation system, religious monuments, and extensive trade and cultural ties with China and India.
After the collapse of the Khmer Empire, the Khmer kingdom was weakened and disintegrated. Cambodia, as a result of being sandwiched by its two big neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, shrunk in territory and diminished in regional influence.
Khmer identity was reconstructed during the French Protectorate. After gaining independence from France in 1953, Khmer identity was reinstated and reinforced. However, these efforts were in vain due to three decades of civil war. 
Without a strong national identity, Cambodia cannot face the wave of globalization and stand firmly on the international stage. Cambodia’s identity is constructed through lessons and experiences from its historical past.
Promoting National Unity 
National unity is crucial for effective security and foreign policies. However, national unity is hard to achieve given historical context and geopolitics.
Cambodian political structure lacks national unity. In the past, opposition groups sought foreign support to topple the other parties. Cambodia has been exposed to cut-throat domestic power, competition and foreign intervention.
The culture of dialogue advanced by the two main political parties, the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party, imparts a foundation to build a long-term national unity based on mutual trust and confidence, constructive criticism, and the spirit of working together.
Foreign Policy Review
It is now important to review foreign policy in order to adjust the Cambodian position on the international stage in the changing regional power structure. Cambodia needs to develop its foreign policy approach based on core principles and pragmatism.
The guiding principles as enshrined in the Constitution are neutrality, non-alliance, and peaceful co-existence. These principles help Cambodia to benefit from strategic competition between major powers in the region and transform the external circumstances into a source of national strength. 
The Cambodian government needs to conduct a broad multi-stakeholder consultation among different political parties, members of parliament, academics, private sector, and civil society groups on Cambodia’s foreign policy. The key issues that need to be discussed include Cambodia’s national interests, how Cambodia can benefit from the rising Asia, how Cambodia can transform external circumstances into a source of national strength, and how Cambodia can diversify its strategic and economic partners.

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