Cambodia is hedging, not bandwagoning

The Khmer Times, 25 April 2016

A competition for power and rivalry between China, the resident power, and the United States, the Pacific power, is rising, creating a new wave of strategic and security uncertainties and tensions across the Asia-Pacific.
Small Southeast Asian countries are under mounting pressure and adjusting or readjusting their position.
Cambodia is walking a tight rope, forging a careful balancing act, trying to diversify its strategic partnerships with all major powers. But having a stable and balanced relationship becomes even more difficult given the intensifying competition for power and the increasing tension over security in the region.
Cambodia’s international image has been damaged by the widespread perception that the Kingdom is the client state or proxy of China, particularly after the failure to issue the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ joint statement in 2012 when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN. The accusation is not fair and just. It does not reflect the realities on the ground.
Some scholars argue that Cambodia chooses to bandwagon with China and that economic interest is the main driving force for this. But, if we observe more carefully, Cambodia is pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy – not putting all its eggs in one basket.
Learning from its past, Cambodia is now wise enough not to become trapped in major power politics. Cambodia was a victim of the Cold War, resulting in three decades of civil war.
The Kingdom’s constitution clearly states that Cambodia adopts a policy of permanent neutrality, non-alignment and peaceful co-existence. In practice, Cambodia promotes a multipolar world, supports global and regional institutions and actively engages in building regional architecture.
ASEAN is regarded as the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. ASEAN is the shield for Cambodia to ward off adverse impacts caused by major power plays. ASEAN assists the neutrality and independence of Cambodia.
Last week’s visits by a top diplomat from China and a senior diplomat from the US reflected Cambodia’s dynamic strategic engagement with both powers.
At the bilateral meeting between Amy Searight, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, and Secretary of State of Defense Ministry Neang Phat on April 20, the US expressed its willingness and commitment to strengthen defense and security ties between the two countries, particularly with Cambodia’s maritime security.
Cambodia welcomes the US role in Asia. Cambodia wishes to see more US support in economic development, capacity building, defense capability enhancement, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. The role of the US in the region is vital to maintaining long-term peace and stability.
But the US should treat Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN as an independent entity, not a function of the US’s China strategy.
A day later, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a two-day visit to Cambodia, meeting his counterpart Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon, paying courtesy calls on His Majesty King Norodom Sihamony, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Hor Nam Hong.
At a press briefing, Cambodia and China praised the fast advancement of bilateral ties and expressed their commitment to maintaining momentum to deepen their comprehensive strategic partnerships. Both countries are working closely to effectively implement the “Belt and Road” initiative, Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and promote the China-ASEAN partnership.
On the South China Sea issue, both countries want a peaceful settlement of the differences and urge claimant states to effectively implement the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties and work towards the early realization of the Code of Conduct.
China has successfully convinced Cambodia not to support the arbitration case submitted by the Philippines to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague over the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China over the South China Sea. The Philippines has worked hard to convince other ASEAN member states to support the court’s decision to be delivered in June.
The South China Sea dispute is a very complex regional security issue, given that it has many stakeholders in the second most important sea-borne trading route in the world. The South China Sea has become the visible platform of the competition for power between China and the US.
Cambodia is not a claimant state. But as a responsible member of ASEAN, Cambodia always stands with ASEAN to promote strategic trust, contain the escalation of tensions through regional dialogue and cooperation. Any militarization in the disputed South China Sea is counter-productive to trust building efforts.
To effectively pursue a neutral and independent foreign policy, Cambodia needs to adopt a hedging strategy, particularly through strategic diversification and the strengthening of regional architecture, which is the embodiment of multiple regional and sub-regional cooperation mechanisms.

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