The Khmer Times, August 1st, 2016
Cambodia has been the victim of great power politics. It has been widely accused of taking sides with China over the disputes in the South China Sea and destroying Asean’s central role and unity.
Some senior diplomats and scholars from the region even question the relevance of Cambodian membership in Asean. These accusations seriously damage the international image of the Kingdom.
It is a diplomatic struggle for Cambodia to deal with these unjust external pressures. The government has frequently clarified its neutral position over the South China Sea disputes, but failed to convince some Asean member countries, although it had good and sincere intentions of not escalating regional tensions.
One of the main shortcomings of Cambodia’s foreign policy is the lack of a smart diplomacy and communication strategy. Reactionary, sometimes emotionally driven, foreign policy is not healthy.
Cambodia needs to have a clear strategic vision with core values, sophisticated approaches, and deliverable action plans. And also collective leadership in foreign policy making is necessary.
More attention and investment in academic and policy research on geopolitics and foreign policy are vital to support the government in developing a pragmatic foreign policy, while standing firm on core values and principles.
National unity and evidence-based foreign policy articulation would help Cambodia to convert challenges into opportunities and transform external environments into a source of national strength.
Therefore, the two main political parties should resume the culture of dialogue and negotiation to promote political trust and confidence and find common ground to promote cooperation to deal with both national and international issues.
Political reconciliation and national unity determine the future of the country. Political leaders are held accountable for failing to unite political and social forces and make use of globalization and regional dynamics.
Smart diplomacy refers to the art of realizing national interests without hurting anyone or any country, a capacity to navigate through complex geopolitics and the power to attract and persuade others.
Cambodia’s position in the South China Sea was too revealing, meaning it clearly appeared to be biased to China. That is why it is conveniently and easily targeted and manipulated by certain countries.
As a small and poor country, Cambodia is very vulnerable to great power politics.
Cambodia should adopt the “beauty of ambiguity” strategy on certain sensitive regional issues to avoid hurting any country or being trapped into great power politics.
Having said that, of course, it is difficult for a small country to stand neutral in the context of rising regional tensions and increasing pressures from major powers.
However, Cambodia could learn foreign policy experience from other small countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, and Singapore.
Cambodia’s national interests include sustainable development and inclusive growth, peace and stability and cultural identity.
Cambodia needs to consolidate democracy, social justice, and human rights since these are the foundations of long-term peace and development. International support in these fields should be further encouraged.
To implement smart diplomacy, Cambodia needs to invest more in nurturing smart and professional diplomats and think tankers and develop smart power consisting of hard and soft power.
As a small country, Cambodia needs to stand firm on rules-based international order. International laws and institutions best protect the interests of a small state. International rules and institutions can constrain the power of major countries and prevent them from taking coercive or aggressive acts.
Asean is the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Although Asean is not resilient enough to ward off the adverse impacts of great power politics, it has a critical role to play in promoting a habit of regional cooperation, trust and confidence building, and preventive diplomacy.
Cambodia needs to continue advocating for a multipolar world in which multiple major countries and regional institutions such as Asean are enabled and empowered to work together to build a new world order.
Diversifying strategic and economic partners would help Cambodia to better maintain its neutrality and benefits maximization.
The future generation of Cambodian leaders should have a long-term vision to become a role model in promoting democracy, rule of law, human rights and inclusive development in Asean.