Author: Chansambath Bong, Asian Vision Institute
Taking the baton for the third time as the ASEAN chair in 2022, Cambodia’s diplomatic tenacity was tested by the war in Ukraine, Myanmar’s political upheaval, cross-Strait tensions, COVID-19 and US–China competition. Despite this precarity, Cambodia steered ASEAN through geopolitically choppy waters. The outlook for 2023 promises to be similarly exigent for Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Sitting at the heart of Southeast Asia, Cambodia will continue to hedge between external powers to protect its sovereignty and pursue an independent foreign and security policy. Two countries that matter immensely in this formula are Japan and China due to their roles in Cambodia’s socioeconomic development.
Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn wrapped up his first foreign trip of 2023 to Japan, where he met Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and discussed ways to deepen bilateral ties, which were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2022.
Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Cambodia-Japan relations in 2022, the two countries are seeking to upgrade their consultation channel from the senior official level to the deputy minister level, indicating a mutual desire for deeper engagement amid growing regional strategic uncertainties.
Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visited China in early February to discuss new infrastructure deals and to reiterate the two countries’ ‘ironclad’ friendship.
Besides China and Japan, Cambodia’s ties with other powers also factor into in its hedging strategy. This includes the European Union and the United States, which are Cambodia’s largest export markets, and long-time partners like India and Australia, whose ties with Cambodia are steadily growing though still leave room for improvement.
Deepening engagement with these countries is intended to serve as a risk-minimising, autonomy-preserving option for Cambodia’s foreign policy in the near future. But hedging is becoming increasingly challenging as US–China competition continues to intensify.
Cambodia will continue to uphold international law and multilateralism as part of its ‘independent rules-based foreign policy’. This is echoed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s congress resolutions and Prak Sokhonn’s subsequent National Assembly speech.
The ‘independent’ pillar suggests Cambodia’s determination to exercise a foreign policy free from external interference that serves the interest of its people and region. Cambodia exercised its independence and leadership as the 2022 ASEAN chair to manage differences among members during one of ASEAN’s most tumultuous years.
The ‘rules’ pillar indicates Cambodia’s effort to exercise a permanently neutral and non-aligned foreign policy as stipulated in Article 53 of its constitution. It also suggests Phnom Penh’s desire to uphold international law upon which small states — itself included — rely for survival.
The war in Ukraine is a case in point. Since February 2022, Cambodia has co-sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions rejecting blatant violations of state sovereignty and the use of force by one state against another. Given Cambodia’s historical ties with Russia, its UN votes rejecting the ongoing war in Ukraine are notable.
Cambodia’s position is not shaped merely by the political cliché of ‘being on the right side of history’. It is driven primarily by its geographic condition as a small state sandwiched between bigger, more powerful neighbours, and its traumatic history of external interference. It is also Hun Sen’s unrelenting belief, spurred from the decades-long civil conflict, that ‘war cannot end war’ and that peace is a prerequisite for all other national progress.
Cambodia seeks to continue its humanitarian contribution to conflict-torn countries. It has sent more than 8,300peacekeepers to nine countries since 2006 and currently stations 801 in four African countries. Engaging in UN-led peacekeeping missions enhances the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities of Cambodia’s armed forces — a priority laid out in its latest defence white paper — and bolsters its foreign policy credibility.
Based on its non-aligned foreign policy and humanitarian grounds, Cambodia trained a group of Ukrainian deminers with support from Japan. Cambodia has also indicated its intention to share its demining expertise and experience with all countries in need, including Russia.
Economic diplomacy will continue to take centre stage in Cambodia’s foreign policy. In 2021, Cambodia unveiled its first-ever Economic Diplomacy Strategy, 2021–2023 (EDS). This acts as Cambodia’s blueprint to integrate itself deeper into regional and global trade systems, position its economy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, galvanise investment and promote cultural exchange. EDS is also part of a broader modernisation of Cambodia’s foreign policy.
Though out of the ASEAN chairmanship limelight, Cambodia’s foreign policy will continue to focus on four priorities — maintaining sovereignty and independence through hedging, upholding international law and multilateralism, supporting global peace through ASEAN and UN-led mechanisms and effectively implementing its economic diplomacy strategy. These priorities will enable the country to realise its ‘independent rules-based foreign policy’ in an increasingly uncertain multipolar world.
Chansambath Bong is Deputy Director of the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy at the Asian Vision Institute, a policy think tank based in Cambodia. He is also Lecturer at the Institute for International Studies and Public Policy at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2022 in review and the year ahead.