29 November 2015, The Khmer Times
The three-day state visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to Cambodia last week marked a milestone in the bilateral relationship. It was the first visit by a Russian leader in almost 30 years.
The two sides signed 10 agreements, covering cooperation on information sharing to combat terrorism and money laundering; direct air services; nuclear energy; information technology; healthcare; and cultural exchanges.
The Russian media focused on economic cooperation while local media drew attention to Cambodia’s $1.5 billion Russian debt. Cambodia has tried to convince Russia to cancel this old debt, incurred during the 1980s.
Looking at the big picture, the visit was part of Russia’s new grand strategy towards Asia. It signified Russia’s long-term interest in comprehensively engaging Asia.
After the end of the Cold War, Russia has significantly reduced its presence and influence in Southeast Asia. The region has since been largely dominated by the US and China.
Russia – which had a naval base in Vietnam until 1991 – started to revive a strong interest in Asia during the third term of President Vladimir Putin. The engagement has only intensified after the Ukraine crisis.
Since the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Ukraine in early 2014 – and the invasion of Georgia in 2008 – Russia’s relations with Europe and the US have been increasingly tense. The US and the EU have imposed economic sanctions on key Russian economic sectors – particularly the financial sector – and corporations, leading to the plunging value of the Russian ruble.
Different interests and approaches between Russia and the US and EU with regards to the war on terror in Syria keep their relations at a distance. Russia, together with Iran, is supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s regime while the US and Europe are more supportive of moderate opposition groups in Syria.
Russia’s Pivot to Asia
Within this context, Russia is convinced that expanding its strategic and economic space in Asia is the core foreign policy agenda for it to compensate for its troubled relations with Europe and the US and to reaffirm Russia’s global role.
China is its most important Asian partner. But Russia is also interested in diversifying its cooperation and partnership with Asia through strengthening ties with Japan, India, South Korea, and Southeast Asian countries.
The Russia-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership has been remarkably enhanced since 1996. Next year, will mark its 20th anniversary. Both sides will organize a Commemorative Summit setting a new direction to deepen and widen the bilateral partnership.
Cambodia is pursuing a foreign policy of neutrality, non-alliance, and multilateralism. Strategic diversification is the key approach to strengthen Cambodia’s position on the international stage.
As a small country, it is necessary for Cambodia to build good, strong and comprehensive partnerships with all major powers, such as China, the US, India, Japan, and Russia.
So far, Cambodia has quite successfully strengthened ties with these major powers – except with the US due to the differences in democratic values and human rights issues.
Bilateral relations with Russia will gain momentum, especially in economic and security cooperation.
Cambodia is interested in expanding the international market for its agricultural and textile products. Russia is a potentially lucrative market.
Cambodia wishes to see more support from Russia in the energy sector. Although nuclear energy remains a long-term vision, Cambodia may need to start investing in human resources development in this sector and Russia is a potential partner in capacity building and technology transfer.