The Khmer Times, 16 December 2016
After years of frayed relationships due to the deep differences over South China Sea issue, Cambodia and the Philippines have entered a new chapter of improved ties after the two-day state visit of President Rodrigo Duterte this week.
Both countries expressed their commitment to enhancing diplomatic, economic and security cooperation.
Four agreements were reached on tourism, cross-border crime which includes drug trafficking, labor protection and sports.
The Philippines will also offer 60 scholarships to Cambodian students and government officials next year.
There will also be more flights between the two countries to promote tourism. Last year, about 75,000 Filipinos visited Cambodia and about 2,500 Cambodian tourists went to the Philippines.
“We will focus on air connectivity. We would like to have a direct flight from Phnom Penh to the Philippines because right now we don’t have one,” said Philippine Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo.
Cooperation on agriculture is expected to gain new steam in the coming years. Technical cooperation on improving rice seeds as well as the development of 100 percent Filipino-owned rice warehouses in Cambodia will further push rice production and exports to the Philippines.
“Truly, I am humbled and honored your majesty. This is a reaffirmation of a long-standing friendship that augurs well for our bilateral relations,” Mr. Duterte told King Norodom Sihamoni.
“Ours is a friendship based on mutual respect and support. It is a friendship that can withstand the challenges of an evolving regional and international environment,” he added.
The visit also contributes to strengthening Asean community building. As the chair of Asean next year, the Philippines has a strong interest in advancing Asean integration and a central role in shaping the evolving regional architecture.
“As close neighbors, we have a common stake in keeping Asean strong, relevant and responsive. This is especially critical at this time when forces are shaping the regional architecture in East Asia,” Mr. Duterte said.
His strategic shift towards China and his firm stand against external interference, particularly from the United States, has drawn admiration and support from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
A mutual understanding had been forged after the informal bilateral meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Vientiane in early September.
Mr. Hun Sen later publicly shared his views on Mr. Duterte.
He said: “I and the Philippine president understand each other” and “we have the same character.”
Mr. Duterte told the prime minister he was tired of interference in his country.
Authoritarian leadership styles and independent foreign policies with a firm position against external pressures are common traits of the two leaders. They also pursue a hedging strategy, which is regarded as the determinant of the survival of a small state.
Well-known Malaysian scholar Cheng-Chwee Kuik, an expert on hedging, argues that “the enduring uncertainty at the systemic level has compelled the states to hedge by pursuing contradictory, mutually counteracting transactions of ‘returns-maximizing’ and ‘risk-contingency’ options.”
“Well, I must tell you that Prime Minister Hun Sen has deep admiration for President Duterte,” Philippine Ambassador Christopher Montero was quoted as saying in the Philippine Star newspaper.
“He has expressed it publicly in the past. He sees in him an ally in terms of standing up against Western countries in so far as non-interference in internal affairs as far as the state is concerned.”
Their shared views on China as the most important economic partner, especially providing development aid without strings attached, also contributes to a strategic convergence between the two.
Although uncertainty remains, the improved relations between the Philippines, China and Cambodia creates a conducive environment for the region to reach a consensus on the South China Sea issue.
The realization of the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea is fundamental to confidence building, preventive diplomacy and conflict management.
It would be a milestone in the Asean-China partnership and a great achievement for the Philippines as the rotating chair of Asean if they could conclude the COC next year.