Cambodia and the diplomacy of small states

The Khmer Times, 17 July 2017

From the Persian Gulf State of Qatar, a small, oil-rich state, to the city state of Singapore, the richest country in Southeast Asia, the debate about small states’ diplomacy has resurfaced.

The key question is how these small states should act amid global power shifts and rising strategic and economic uncertainty.

The world is getting more unpredictable. Small states are becoming more vulnerable to changing geopolitics and the risks stemming from major power rivalry.

Qatar has diplomatic rifts with a Saudi Arabian-led bloc due to deep differences with regards to Qatar’s alleged support for militants and Islamists and its bilateral relations with Turkey and Iran.

Drawing on the experiences from Qatar, diplomats and scholars from Singapore have come up with different observations and contrasting ideas.

In the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, Singapore is thriving to maintain its place in the world notwithstanding global changes. But Singapore’s role and leverage in world politics are gradually receding.

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, cautiously suggested that “small states must behave like small states”.

He humbly advised that small states should “exercise discretion” and restraint from “commenting on matters involving great powers”.

His arguments largely reflect the foreign policy behaviour of small states, including Cambodia.

On the other hand, Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan opines that “independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates”.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long later said: “You cannot lie low and hope that nobody will notice you. And I think that’s how Singapore must conduct our foreign policy.”

Cambodia is facing mounting challenges in exercising its neutral foreign policy. Located between two big neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia has sought support from external powers to counter-balance the two neighbours.

In the eyes of the current ruling elites, building a close strategic alliance with China is believed to be the most viable foreign policy option to maintain its political independence and sovereignty.

Leaders’ world views, national interests and foreign policy principles all together shape Cambodia’s foreign policy.

Cambodian leaders perceive that the new world order, which is rapidly evolving, is shaped by the interplay of major powers and the increasing roles of middle powers and international organisations.

Unlike the Cold War, which ended in victory for the US-led bloc, there will be no winner in the ongoing global power game. Therefore, small states must know how to play it safe by not taking sides.

Cambodia’s national interests are mainly defined in terms of economic development and poverty reduction. Hence, Cambodia’s foreign policy gives more emphasis on economic cooperation and regional integration, while pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy approach.

As a small state, Cambodia has less leverage in shaping a new world order. What it can do is to strengthen global and regional institutions, promoting dialogues and trust building and advocating for a rules-based international order.

Cambodia has strictly followed the principles of non-interference, permanent neutrality, peaceful coexistence and non-alliance as stipulated in its constitution. These principles will continue to serve the interest of a small state.

Some of Cambodia’s strategies are refraining from getting involved in international disputes or conflicts, especially those related to the core interests of major powers, playing a safe and low-profile diplomacy concerning internationally sensitive issues and promoting a trust-based and rules-based international order.

Other strategies include the transformation of international challenges and uncertainties into a source of national economic development and applying smart and flexible diplomacy to economically benefit from all major and middle powers.

It may be wishful thinking, but Cambodia should aim to become the beacon of democracy and good governance in the Mekong region and be a role model in sustainable and inclusive development.

Cambodia’s destiny is defined and determined by the Cambodian people themselves, who must work together to strengthen national unity, social harmony, collective leadership and its institutional capacity to realise its independent and forward-looking foreign policy.

As a small state, Cambodia is fully aware of its limits and vulnerabilities. However, a small state is not a weak state, but a resilient and vibrant state if the leadership is strong, with a clear vision and the country is united.

Foreseeing multiple futures of the world’s geopolitics and geo-economics and preparing itself to adapt to a fast-changing world, while standing firm on its foreign policy principles and values, Cambodia would be able to thrive and advance.

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