The Interplay between domestic politics and foreign policy in Cambodia

09 August 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Regional geopolitics is becoming more complex and unpredictable. Competition between China and the US is on the rise and regional security flash points, especially the disputes in East and South China seas, remain unsettled and are the main sources of regional instability.
In this context, Cambodia needs to promote national political reconciliation and unity, stand up for its legitimate national interests, be adaptive but maintain strategic vision and policy coherence, and find its place and stand firm on the international stage.
Domestic politics is an important part in explaining and even determining foreign policy. Domestic political changes have significantly impacted Cambodia’s stand on the international stage.
Any political leadership change in the Kingdom will greatly impact foreign policy strategy and approaches, especially towards its immediate neighbors and major powers.
National Unity is Vital
The main challenge and constraint in Cambodia’s foreign policy is the lack of national unity and consensus. Without national unity, Cambodia cannot effectively exercise its foreign policy and diplomacy. Without national unity, Cambodia is vulnerable to fast-changing regional geopolitics.
The lack of a common position and approach on border disputes with its neighbors puts Cambodia in a weaker position in bilateral negotiations. Political leaders need to deepen strategic trust through frequent, frank and open dialogue through which political consensus can be achieved. However, this is always difficult to realize.
Culture of Dialogue Remains Fragile
The culture of dialogue between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is believed to be the pathway towards national reconciliation and long-term peace and stability.
However, after one year this approach has been disturbed by the deep differences between the two parties in their approaches towards the border dispute with Vietnam, as well as disagreement over the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO). The sentencing of 11 CNRP activists last month further worsened strategic trust between the two parties.
The culture of dialogue is doomed to fail if the leaders of both parties cannot find common ground, do not put the national interest above all else, and continue to play the game of political bashing. The victims of the failure of the culture of dialogue are Cambodians struggling to survive and build their future.
Grim Political Outlook 
Cambodia may go through another round of political instability unless the border dispute with Vietnam is appropriately managed and resolved and the culture of dialogue is put back on track and produces more concrete results based on cooperation and partnership.
Political unpredictability damages investor confidence, which can slow economic development. It is safe to say that the main root cause of political instability is the problem of youth unemployment. Cambodia has around 5 million young people aged between 15 and 29 years old, accounting for about 30 percent of the total population.  Although youth unemployment rates have fallen since 2006 – when a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that about 20 percent of youths in Phnom Penh lacked jobs – unemployment and underemployment remains widespread nationally.
Cambodia’s Fragile Balance Of Power
Cambodia walks a tightrope balancing its foreign policy between major powers. Some foreign observers argue that Cambodia has already lost its balance due to its strategic relationship with China. However, Cambodia is in fact diversifying its strategic and development partners.
Cambodia’s bilateral ties with Japan, Russia, and India have been enhanced quite remarkably over the last decade. But its relations with the US have been constrained and held back by differences in democratic values and human rights. Cambodian-US ties can only be improved after the 2018 general elections, when a freer, fairer, and more inclusive general election is conducted.
As a small, developing country, Cambodia must be pragmatic in its foreign policy strategy and adaptive to geopolitical transformations. It needs to have bureaucratic and diplomatic flexibility while standing firm on the principles and core values enshrined in the Constitution. It needs to have a foreign policy sagacity and capacity to maneuver.
Cambodia should project itself to be a respected and responsible actor on the international stage. It needs to be consistent and persistent in promoting rules-based international relations, advocating for a multipolar world order, taking a leadership role in regional community building, and strengthening multilateral institutions.

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