Sunday, 14 September 2014

Formulating Cambodia's Foreign Policy Grand Strategy



Gala Dinner in the occasion of the 21st ASEAN Summit and Related Summit on 19 November 2012, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

The glory of Khmer empire, from 9th century to 15th century, and Agkor Wat temple are Cambodia’s national pride. At that time, the Khmer Empire, currently Cambodia, had been a major power in Southeast Asian region in terms of military might, diplomacy, and trade. Unfortunately, this did not last long. The collapse of the empire combined with internal conflicts has brought a dark period for Cambodia’s history. Today, it has been perceived as a war-torn country, which was plagued by civil wars, landmines, and foreign interventions. However, the end of civil war opens a new golden chapter for Cambodia in the 21st century to pursue its national core interests, especially 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 rate of around 7 percent.


New geopolitical landscape emerges, such as the rise of China and India, and the US's Pivot to Asia, brings challenges for the region. Therefore, it is vital for Cambodia to have a grand strategy in foreign policy if it wishes to overcome regional challenges and become a key regional player in the region. According to Hal Brands (2014), a grand strategy could be an integrated set of principles and priorities that help nations navigate a complex and dangerous international environment in order to achieve their national interests successfully. If we noticed Cambodian government’s activities and achievements so far, Cambodia’s grand strategy on foreign policy would be based on three pillars as follows:  

First, Asian Century. The gravity of global power has shifted to Asia and the Pacific. The 21st century is the Asian century, in which most countries in Asia, such as China, Japan, South Korea, India, ASEAN countries, especially Cambodia, have sustained strong economic growth in recent years. China, the second largest economy after the United State, is also ASEAN’s largest trading partners. We can see that Cambodia has focused most of its diplomatic efforts in ASEAN and other ASEAN-led regional forum, such as East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). It also upgraded its existing diplomatic ties with major powers in Asia, such as China and Japan. In 2012 and 2013, Cambodia upgraded its diplomatic relations to strategic partnership with China and Japan respectively. In the first half of 2014 alone, Cambodia launched its diplomatic charm offensive to countries, such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bangladesh in order to promote political, economic and trade relations. In Azerbaijan, the leaders of the two countries signed an MOU, in which Azerbaijan will provide technical assistance in oil exploration and production to Cambodia. This indicates another significant shift of Cambodia’s foreign policy from political diplomacy to economic diplomacy. Cambodia, through ASEAN framework, and ASEAN’s Dialogue Partner countries are engaging with comprehensive free trade deals, such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). All of these efforts are aimed to reap the benefit of regional integration where economic potentials continue to emerge and be tapped. This is the golden opportunity for Cambodia to pivot deeply to Asia Pacific in order to sustain its strong economic growth. In the context of Asian century, ASEAN should remain to be the corner stone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Furthermore, Cambodia needs to balance its economic, military, and political interests between its neighbors, China, US, and ASEAN. This will need to be done with skill if Cambodia wishes to stay prosperous over the long term. 

Second is the Post-Conflict Cambodia, which has been favourable to its own national development effort. The post-cold war  environment  offered Cambodia both challenges and opportunities for its own national development and proactive engagement with regional and international community. Now, diplomatic effort to build identity and prestige in the region and the world is one of the priorities of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodia needs to be active in its foreign policy so that it can mobilize resources and international assistances for its national development, especially in physical infrastructure and poverty eradication. After decades of civil wars and chaos, now it is time for Cambodia to improve its status in both regional and international fora. Cambodia has succeeded in proving to the world that it has capability to achieve national reconciliation with its own national efforts without outside intervention. For instance, the world leaders have congratulated the recent of successful political settlement between Cambodian People Party (CPP) and Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on 22 July 2014 to end the political stalemate after national election last year. Another success is the establishment of ASEAN Regional Mines Centre (ARMAC) in Cambodia, which will be first ASEAN centre in addressing landmines and explosive remnant of wars in the region. ARMAC will also promote Cambodia’s diplomatic efforts in projecting its soft power in region and the world. However, the post-conflict Cambodia also requires a grand vision to reap opportunity and address challenges in the long-run. This may come to the roles of democracy, rules of law, good governance, free market economy, and maintaining peace and stability in Cambodia.

Third, Cambodia follows its six-point principle in foreign policy, which is outlined in article of 53 of its Constitution. First, it shall strictly follow a policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Second, Cambodia has to maintain a policy of peaceful co-existence with its neighbors and with all other countries throughout the world. Third, it shall not invade any country, nor interfere in any other country’s internal affairs, and shall solve any problem peacefully. Fourth, it is prohibited to have any military alliance or military pact with other countries. Fifth, it shall not permit any foreign military base on its territory and shall not have its own military base 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 purpose. Failure to follow these principles will result in political chaos and conflicts in the same way as Cambodia endured in 1970s and 1980s. The recent Thai political chaos and Cambodia’s decision of not allowing or harboring any anti-Thai coup activists in its country has proving that Cambodia strictly follows the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of its neighbor. As a result, Cambodia-Thailand relations have been significantly improved since the junta government took power since May 2014.  

Cambodia needs to develop this three-pillar based grand strategy for its proactive foreign policy. However, making this process viable and successful need no closed door approach. The government needs to develop and formulate its foreing policy’s priorities through an open and transparent process, which require participations of the public, civil society, think tanks, etc. Besides its strategic calculation of the pillars (Asian century, post-conflict Cambodia, and six-point principles in conduct of foreign policy), Cambodia needs to secure a significant masterpiece of its foreign policy endeavor, for example the need to have substantive contribution to settlements of regional conflict and tension, such as the issue of South China Sea. 

South China Sea dispute poses not only challenges to ASEAN, but it also presents opportunity for Cambodia’s foreign diplomacy due to Cambodia’s close relations with China. In 2012, during the 21st ASEAN Summit, Cambodia successfully hosted ASEAN Global Dialogue, which aimed mobilize assistances and resources to implement Phnom Penh Agenda on ASEAN Community Building. Thus, it can come up with another major regional initiative to contribute to regional peace and stability as it had done twelve years ago during its first ASEAN Chairmanship in 2002 in Phnom Penh, where the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea (DOC) were signed by ASEAN and China. One of possible and realistic idea is to initiate and host a regular annual Dialogue on the DOC, for instance, Phnom Penh Dialogue on DOC, where ASEAN and China come to exchange views on how to have a full and effective implementation of the DOC, and to build trust and confidence among the concerned parties. Such Dialogue is to keep DOC remain relevant and continue to be an important mechanism in dealing with the current situation in the South China Sea. Currently, ASEAN and China are now embarking on negotiation on the Code of Conducts (COC). However, the negotiation on COC has just begun last year and will need more time and strenuous efforts in the long run.

Since the DOC was signed in Phnom Penh in 2002, Cambodia is in a unique position which other ASEAN countries do not possess. First, it has maintained closer relations with China. Second, Cambodia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea. Third, Cambodia has a balanced foreign policy interests and objectives with regards to its neighbor and ASEAN. Indonesia can not be the best mediator in the South China Sea dispute since it also have overlapping claim with the China’s nine-dash line in the area around Natuna Island. Although the year 2012 was so problematic during Cambodia’s chairmanship, ASEAN still managed to obtain two major achievements, namely ASEAN-Six-Point Principles on South China Sea, and Joint Statement on the 10th anniversary of DOC, which contain strategic significance in ASEAN’s diplomacy and efforts to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, and also to sustain good strategic partnership between ASEAN and China as well.

If Cambodia is able to gain trust and confidence from other ASEAN countries, especially the claimant states, and China, through organizing such a strategic forum or dialogue, it will pave the way for its successful chairmanship of ASEAN again in the next round, probably in 2022. The South China Sea dispute is proving to be a key test for Cambodia’s foreign policy since its joined ASEAN in 1999. Whether Cambodia can prove this or not depends on the political commitments of its leaders and foreign policy makers. In addition, formulating a successful grand strategy in its foreign policy is needed in order to transform challenges and dilemmas, often facing by small states, into opportunities for the country and the whole region.





Other Articles on ASEAN and Cambodia: 

 1. Four Grand Scenarios of ASEAN 
    (17 July 2014)

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