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Can Cambodia Navigate US-China Rivalry?

ISSUE 2020
No 28
Release 24 August 2020
By LENG Thearith, PhD*

The US-China rivalry has escalated on several fronts ⎯ economy, military, technology, espionage, the Covid-19 blame game, and democracy. This dangerous contestation has caused significant challenges and concern for small states like Cambodia. Some have dubbed this confrontation as Cold War 2.0. Both great powers have been seeking to create their own allies and spheres of influence, leaving little room for small states to manoeuvre in-between. Cambodia neither wants to take sides nor to be boxed in. Against this backdrop, the Kingdom has opted for active neutral foreign policy, which does not necessarily stick to the passive element of conventional neutrality ⎯ non-alignment.

In dealing with the US-China rivalry, Cambodia has moved to please both powers considering their utmost significance for Cambodia’s economy and security. In its relations with China, the Kingdom is the staunch supporter of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Hong Kong National Security Law. Moreover, amid the worsening Coronavirus outbreak in China in early 2020, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was the first foreign leader to visit China in a bid to show solidarity and support towards the Chinese government and people. Cambodia’s close relationship with China is not, however, built at the expense of the Kingdom’s relations with other countries, especially the United States.

Phnom Penh has indeed shown positive gestures towards Washington on multiple occasions. It has supported the US’s Lower Mekong Initiative and other regional initiatives. On the bilateral relations basis, it has also lent itsstrong support to the US’s Missing in Action Program (MIA), which allows the US government to recover the American fallen soldiers in the Vietnam War. In July 2019, in response to the US’s concern over the alleged China’s military bases in Cambodia, the government invited foreign observers, including the Americans to visit its Ream Naval Base, where the US had suspected of hosting the Chinese military. In addition, Cambodia has publicly declared its intention to resume the Angkor Sentinel military exercise with the US, which was postponed in 2017 due to Cambodia’s domestic politics.

Cambodia’s handling of the rescue operation of the MS Westerdam cruise ship in February 2020 was another indication of the Kingdom’s move to restore trust and cooperation with the US after years of diplomatic friction. The Cambodian authorities allowed the cruise ship, which had many Americans onboard, to dock at the port of Sihanoukville after it had failed to obtain the docking permissions from several countries which feared of the potential spread of the virus to their people.

Striking a good balance at the time of heightening US-China confrontation is a daunting task for Cambodia. The Kingdom may risk being forced to pick sides as it was during the Cold War era if the US does not have a constructive and effective engagement strategy. One can say that the ball is now in the US’s court. Cambodia can be easily caught between a rock and a hard place at any time. Therefore, the adoption of traditional non-alignment foreign policy stance between the two rival powers would not work well, particularly when their tensions keep rising. Cambodia’s non-alignment gesture could be perceived, especially by Washington as an act of allying with Beijing. In this regard, the implementation of active elements of neutrality such as the promotion of international peace-loving image, cultural diplomacy, economic diplomacy, and multilateral engagements may contribute to the promotion of the Kingdom’s image as a non-threatening force, especially in the eyes of the US.

Cambodia’s efforts to elevate its peace-loving image internationally can be seen in its active contributions to the United Nations’s peacekeeping missions. To date, the Kingdom has dispatched around 6,000 of its peacekeeping forces to eight countries in Africa and the Middle East under the United Nations framework. The majority of them have been involved in demining and humanitarian activities. Cambodia’s contributions to international peace have built the image of Cambodia as a peace-loving and generous nation that gives back to the world after emerging out of a long period of civil war.

The second element of the active neutrality Cambodia has been pursuing is the promotion of cultural diplomacy. In January 2019, Cambodia launched the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) with the aim to promote peace, stability and development through cultural cooperation, tolerance, mutual respect, and mutual trust. Culture is fundamental to peaceful relations of all countries worldwide. Earlier this month, the ACC-Cambodia was institutionalised and integrated into the official mechanisms of the external relations of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The third element of the active neutrality is the expansion of the economic diplomacy horizon. The policy of neutrality cannot be fully realised unless Cambodia has strong economic independence. The economic diplomacy has recently driven Phnom Penh to seek bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries and regions. By the time of this writing, Cambodia has just finalised its free trade negotiations with China and is due to officially ink the deal this month. Meanwhile, the country is also in the process of negotiating another FTA with the Republic of Korea, and it is exploring opportunities to conclude other FTAs with Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Apart from its efforts to strengthen its international peace-loving, cultural and economic diplomacy pillars, Cambodia has strongly embraced multilateralism in its foreign policy. The Kingdom has actively participated in various ASEAN-led initiatives and has committed to hosting the high-profile Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM). Amid the growing Covid-19 pandemic threat in the region, Phnom Penh has closely worked with other ASEAN colleagues to find solutions to this looming crisis, which culminated in the conclusion in April 2020 of ASEAN’s multiple agreements/statements on effective economic, social and health responses to the Covid-19 crisis.

In addition, Cambodia has envisaged to become a bridge between Asia and Europe through hosting the 13th Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in mid-2021 under the motto of “Multilateralism for Shared Growth”. It is worth noting that the ASEM meeting is a high-profile event with the participation of 51 countries from Asia and Europe, the ASEAN Secretariat and the European Union. Its main aim is to discuss a wide range of policy issues related to trade, public health, geopolitics, infrastructure connectivity and other issues of common interests.

To sum up, Cambodia has made remarkable efforts to walk the fine line between the US and China, despite some difficulties in maintaining such a balance at times, particularly when the rivalry between these two powers becomes worsening. Sensing these challenges ahead, this small state has embraced the four elements of active neutrality as demonstrated in its ongoing efforts to promote economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, international image as a peace- loving nation, and multilateral engagements. By so doing, Cambodia may not be boxed in the Cold War 2.0, thus giving it more freedom to manoeuvre in the future.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.