The glory days of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century, and Angkor Wat are the pride of Cambodia. The Khmer Empire was in its time a major power in Southeast Asia in terms of military might, diplomacy and trade. Unfortunately, it did not last. The collapse of the empire combined with internal conflict signaled the beginning of the Dark Ages of Cambodia, colonization, and conflict..
Today, Cambodia is perceived as a war-torn country, one plagued by civil war, landmines, and foreign intervention. Nevertheless, with civil war at an end, the country has the potential to start of a promising new chapter, one in which it pursues its core national interests, most notably stability, sovereignty, economic development, and image building. After successful national reconciliation and regional integration, Cambodia is now well on its way to becoming a lower middle-income country with annual GDP growth of around 7 percent.
However, as the international landscape changes, for instance with the rise of China and the U.S. “rebalancing” to Asia, new regional challenges are emerging. If it is to deal successfully with these challenges and become a relevant player within the region, Cambodia must have a grand strategy for its foreign policy. According to Hal Brands, a grand strategy can be an integrated set of principles and priorities that helps a country navigate a complex and dangerous international environment to achieve its national interests.
In looking at what the Cambodian government has done with its foreign policy to date, it appears that Cambodia’s grand strategy rests on three pillars.
The first of those pillars we might call the “Asian Century.” Certainly, the gravity of global power has shifted to the Asia-Pacific and the 21st century is shaping up to the Asian century, with most countries in the region, such as China, India, and the ASEAN countries, among them Cambodia, enjoying strong economic growth in recent years. China, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, is also ASEAN’s largest trading partner.
Not surprisingly, Cambodia has focused most of its diplomatic efforts on ASEAN and other ASEAN-led regional forums, such as the East Asia Summit. It has strengthened its existing diplomatic ties with major powers in the region, such as China and Japan. Cambodia upgraded its diplomatic relations with China and Japan to the level of strategic partnership in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
Recently, Cambodia has also launched a diplomatic charm offensive* targeting countries such as Belarus and Azerbaijan, hoping to promote economic and trade relations. This signals another major shift in its foreign policy, from political diplomacy to economic diplomacy.
In a regional context, ASEAN and its Dialogue Partner countries are negotiating comprehensive free trade deals, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). All of these efforts are designed to reap the benefit of regional integration, and represent a golden opportunity for Cambodia to focus on the Asia-Pacific to sustain its economic growth. In the context of the Asian century, ASEAN should remain the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. But Cambodia also needs to balance its economic, military and political interests among its immediate neighbors, China, the U.S., and ASEAN. This will need to be done with skill if Cambodia wishes to remains prosperous over the long term.
The second pillar is post-conflict Cambodia, which has been an environment favorable to its own national development effort. The post-Cold War environment offered Cambodia both challenges and opportunities for development and proactive engagement with the regional and international communities. Today, diplomatic efforts to rebuild its prestige in the region is one of the priorities of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodia needs an active foreign policy so that it can mobilize resources and international assistance for its development, especially in physical infrastructure and poverty eradication. After decades of civil war and chaos, now is the time for Cambodia to improve its status in regional and international forums. The establishment of the ASEAN Regional Mines Centre (ARMAC) in Cambodia, as the first ASEAN center to address landmines and explosive remnants of wars in the region, could be a first step in helping Cambodia build influence.
However, post-conflict Cambodia also requires a grand vision to reap opportunities and address challenges in the long run. This vision must entail democracy, rule of law, good governance, a free market economy, and peace and stability.
Third, Cambodia is following a set of six foreign policy principles, described in Article 53 of its Constitution. First, it follows a strict policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Second, Cambodia maintains a policy of peaceful co-existence with its neighbors and with all other countries. Third, it will not invade any country, nor interfere in any other country’s internal affairs, and shall solve problems peacefully. Fourth, Cambodia is prohibited from having any military alliance or military pact with any other country that is incompatible with its policy of neutrality. Fifth, it shall not permit any foreign military base on its territory and shall not maintain its own military bases abroad, except within the framework of United Nations Peacekeeping missions. Sixth, it reserves the right to receive foreign military assistance and training of its armed forces for self-defense purposes.
Failure to follow these principles would result in political chaos and conflict of the kind Cambodia endured in the 1970s and 80s. The recent political chaos in Thailand and Cambodia’s decision not to grant a safe haven to any anti-Thai coup activists demonstrates that Cambodia is serious about following the principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors. As a result, Cambodia-Thailand relations have improved significantly since the military junta took power in Thailand in May 2014.
Building on this three-pillar grand strategy will be critical if Cambodia is to have an active foreign policy. This must be done in an open and transparent process, with the participation of think tanks, civil society, and the general public. Cambodia also needs to score a major foreign policy goal, for example a substantive contribution to settling regional disputes. Perhaps the South China Sea dispute.
The current tensions in the South China Sea are a serious challenge to ASEAN, and an opportunity for Cambodian diplomacy, given the country’s close relations with China. In 2012, during the 21st ASEAN Summit, Cambodia successfully hosted the ASEAN Global Dialogue, which sought to mobilize assistance and resources to implement the Phnom Penh Agenda on ASEAN Community Building. It should now aspire to come up with another major regional initiative to contribute to regional peace and stability, just as it did twelve years ago during its first ASEAN Chairmanship in 2002, when the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea (DOC) were signed by ASEAN and China. One possible idea would be to initiate and host a regular annual dialogue on the DOC, a Phnom Penh Dialogue on the DOC say, providing a forum for ASEAN and China to exchange views on how to achieve a full and effective implementation of the DOC, and to build trust and confidence among the parties. The dialogue could also help to find a consensus towards an eventual conclusion of a Code of Conduct, one of the objectives set out by the DOC in 2002.
Compared to its fellow ASEAN members, Cambodia enjoys a unique position. First, it has maintained closer relations with China. Second, Cambodia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea. Third, Cambodia has balanced foreign policy interests and objectives with regards to its neighbors and ASEAN. Indonesia cannot be the best mediator in the South China Sea dispute since it also has overlapping claims with China’s nine-dash line in the area around the Natuna Islands. Another two major achievements for Cambodia in 2012 were the ASEAN Six-Point Principles on South China Sea, and the Joint Statement on the 10th anniversary of DOC, which were of strategic significance for ASEAN’s diplomacy and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, while maintaining a good strategic partnership between ASEAN and China.
The South China Sea dispute will be a key test of Cambodia’s foreign policy, as will developing a successful foreign policy grand strategy that addresses the challenges often faced by smaller states. Whether Cambodia passes these tests will depend on the political commitment of its leaders and foreign policymakers.
*Corrected from the original.