Op-ed: Cambodia’s Modern Diplomacy

AKP Phnom Penh, June 10, 2020 —

Due to limited resources and capability, small states heavily rely on external sources for growth hence they are vulnerable to external shocks. To cope with increasing external challenges, Cambodia has recently introduced a concept on modern diplomacy with a focus on economic diplomacy and economic security, in addition to the traditional diplomacy which highlights traditional security and sovereignty.

Economic pragmatism, which refers to the alignment of foreign policy with national economic development, has become a foreign policy compass, and this is even more so amid the unfolding crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nation states fall or thrive depending on how well it could manage its economic recovery and the provision of social and economic well-being of its people.

For Cambodia, diversification and international integration are essential to national development. At the turn the century, Cambodia’s foreign policy has become more dynamic and outward-looking, especially after becoming the member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999 and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2004. Economic development is one of the core national interests of Cambodia’s foreign policy, such as seeking development assistance, expanding export markets, attracting foreign investors and tourists.

In terms of international integration, Cambodia has adopted a two-pronged approach. Firstly, transforming the international environment into a source of national development. Secondly, diversifying strategic partnerships based on the calculation of economic interests. Transforming external environment into a source of national strength is critical to realising Cambodia’s vision to become an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050.

Cambodia has actively participated in multilateral trade agreements such as ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the upcoming Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). On the bilateral front, Cambodia is in the process of negotiating Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China- it is expected to be concluded by the end of this year. In addition, the Kingdom has also explored FTA negotiation with the Republic of Korea and the Eurasian Economic Union.

At the closing ceremony of professional training for the Cambodian diplomats at the National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations (NIDIR) on May 3, 2020, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon stressed three key points. Firstly, Cambodian diplomats must do their best to protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the country. Secondly, foreign policy is a critical tool to develop the economy. Notably, since early 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has formed a unit working on economic diplomacy. Thirdly, Cambodian diplomats to be equipped with Diplomacy 4.0 and digital diplomacy.

Cambodia’s modern diplomacy can be categorised into four pillars. Firstly, peace diplomacy which refers to the contribution to international peace such as the sending of more than 6,000 peacekeeping forces under the umbrella of the United Nations, and the sharing of national experiences in conflict resolution and peacebuilding particularly under the win-win policy. Secondly, economic diplomacy which means the promotion of Cambodia as the destination for foreign investors and tourists, and the expansion of international markets for Cambodian products and services. Thirdly, cultural diplomacy which aims to promote the richness and uniqueness of Cambodian culture and history. For instance, in early 2019, the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) was launched in Siem Reap. Fourthly, digital diplomacy which refers to the use of ICT to achieve foreign policy objectives. Currently the National Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations (NIDIR) is developing training programme on digital diplomacy.

We are living in a dangerous time. The geopolitical contestation between the U.S. and China presents huge challenges for small states like Cambodia to adjust and adapt. The more uncertainty the international environment, the more relevant hedging strategy becomes. Cambodia similar to other Southeast Asian countries is not interested in taking sides or are forced to choose sides-but it seems this option is getting more difficult to achieve.

Cambodia has carefully crafted and implemented hedging strategy particularly within the context of rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China. Cambodia does not wish to become a vassal state or a victim of great power politics again as it experienced during the Cold War. History informs us that self-reliance, national unity, and smart diplomacy should the survival playbook for the Kingdom.

Moreover, there is a growing consensus that the best way to protect and advance national interests is through the enhancement of multilateral system and the upholding a rules-based international order. Prime Minister Hun Sen, at the 25th International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo in 2019, said that, Cambodia is against protectionism and unilateralism as these political ideologies hinder global progress and disrupt open globalisation. Moreover, at the World Summit 2020 in Seoul, he called for an open and inclusive multilateral trading system and international connectivity.

There are no better alternatives for Cambodia than building national resilience while promoting international integration. In this spirit, “reforming at home and making friends abroad based on the spirit of independence” is the guiding governance philosophy for the Kingdom moving forward. Leadership and institutional capacity matter the most on this reform path. The multiple, systemic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic provides a window of opportunity for deep structural reforms at both the public and private institutions, but it is very narrow. Those who could see and exploit the opportunities would bounce back stronger in the povid-Covid-19 era.

By Dr. Chheang Vannarith
President of Asian Vision Institute