Cambodia Confronts “Great Power” Politics

28 May 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The strategic rivalry between China and US in the Asia-Pacific is on the rise. Cambodia’s most challenging foreign policy task is to strike a balance between and benefit from these two great powers. 
Stable and healthy China-US relations are the bedrock of regional peace and stability. Both countries have been urged to find common ground and approaches in managing their conflicting interests. However, neither country has effectively developed their strategic narrative and actions that can forge a common vision or dream based on shared interests and global responsibility.
“A new type of major power relations” is necessary between China and US, as suggested by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip to US in late 2012. This historic initiative aims to maintain global order amid global power transformations caused by the rising power of China. 
For the US, it needs to be prepared to adjust its global power position. In the next decade, China will surpass the US to become the world’s number one economic power, although US will remain a dominant military power.
For China, should it attempt to create regional hegemony at the expense of the US and other regional countries, it will fail in its mission of promoting “peaceful development.” And the Chinese Dream advanced by Xi will be doomed to failure as well. 
Mutual strategic trust and position readjustment are necessary for both China and the US. They need to work closer together to overcome strategic misconceptions and build a common strategic purpose, especially on constructing a stable global order and functioning global institutions. 
Within such complex great power politics, what should the strategy for Cambodia be? 
Striking for a Balance
As a small country, Cambodia has to forge equidistant bilateral relations with all major powers. Currently, Cambodia has much stronger comprehensive strategic partnership with China than with the US. 
The Cambodia-US relationship is faced with the lack of mutual strategic trust and understanding arising from different values and approaches. 
A case in point was the harsh reaction by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to comments made by US Ambassador William Todd, on the NGO draft law .
Both Cambodian and US leaders need to improve their political perceptions of the other party. Promoting bilateral dialogues among different key stakeholders between two countries can enhance mutual understanding and find common areas for further cooperation. 
Human rights and democracy remain the key stumbling block in Cambodia-US relations. However, one should not look at the relations only through the prism of human rights and democracy. There are many other areas that both countries can work together especially in economic cooperation and human resources development. 
Strengthening Asean Centrality 
Multilateral institutions and mechanisms provide opportunities and space for a small country to strengthen its independence and realize its national interests, especially within the context of rivalries or conflicts between great powers. 
Asean is a regional shield protecting member states from becoming pawns in a great power game. Asean has a vital role in promoting rules-based international relations and a regional code of conduct expected to shape the behavior of great powers.
However, Asean is confronted with unprecedented challenges emanating from strategic competition between China and US and its allies. The South China Sea dispute, now a strategic playground between China and the US, poses a real threat to Asean unity and relevancy. 
Therefore, promoting and safeguarding “Asean centrality” in shaping regional architecture is crucial for Asean. The regional bloc must take a leadership role in building effective pan-Asia Pacific regional institutions to prevent and resolve regional disputes.

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