A temple by the riverside in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. Photo: iStock

As Cambodia faces domestic and international challenges, the country is pinning its hopes on three key issues for 2020, namely its position amid geopolitical competition, a new domestic political culture, and economic resilience.

Geopolitical melting pot

For good or for bad, Cambodia has always been the darling, if not the trash bin, of geopolitical competition. Despite the fact that the last geopolitical proxy war was tragic, the temptation to use Cambodia as a geopolitical platform is re-emerging between the US and China as well as between China and Vietnam.

Cambodia should learn from Thailand in terms of how the latter has never been colonized but instead has always served as a platform for healthy competition that is beneficial for Thailand both economically and politically.

Historically, Cambodia can also take aspiration from its 16th- and 17th-century position when it was the center of commercial connectivity in the region that could balance harmonious co-existence among Chinese, Japanese and European traders. It was known that Phnom Penh in those days was the international and regional Mekong upstream port-of-trade and marketing emporium and a major supplier of deerskins that were shipped to Tokugawa Japan, in return for a variety of silver and international products.

Key to this point is how Cambodia can identify its contemporary “deerskins” that could help appease American, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European partners altogether. How can Cambodia position itself as a geopolitical melting pot without another disaster to its own people like that in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s? How can Cambodia appease different players while firmly protecting its sovereignty, independence and national interests?

Let’s cite concrete examples. If the US perceives that Cambodia is hosting a Chinese military port in Ream Naval Base, Cambodia can possibly address such distrust by resuming military exercise with the US at that base at mutually agreeable terms. If the US perceives that Cambodia is hosting a Chinese airbase in Koh Kong province, Cambodia can probably outsource airport management to joint-venture companies that may dilute the Chinese monopoly while maintaining mutual economic benefits among all parties concerned.

If Vietnam perceives that Cambodia is supporting China on South China Sea issues, Cambodia can possibly encourage Vietnam to create a bilateral border mechanism with China to institutionalize constructive dialogues like that between Cambodia and Thailand.

Regarding the South China Sea, there is a growing trend to accept the oversimplification that any failure to reach a consensus over a joint communiqué or any other ASEAN statements in which SCS issues are involved are caused by Cambodia, which is perceived as a vassal state of China, despite the fact that negotiations among 10 actors with different interests and positions are highly complex.

Vietnam and the US should be able to understand by now that it can just never happen that Cambodia would support either China or Vietnam, which have overlapping claims with other member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Because it was an indisputable fact that when Cambodia had territorial issues with Thailand over the ownership of land surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple, neither China, the US, Vietnam, the Philippines or Japan could take any position to the contrary.

It is quite obvious that Cambodia’s position remains the same, taking no side on territorial issues in the South China Sea, and urging states directly involved to deal with the issues among themselves peacefully without provocation, threat or coercion, demonization or victimization.

New domestic political culture

There exists an exceptional opportunity for Cambodia to reset its domestic political culture after the dissolution of an opposition that aligned itself with constant foreign interventions, extremism, racism and non-democratic regime change.

Cambodia should reinvent national consensus and national reconciliation among domestic political actors by building a new political culture that is based on dialogue, policy-based debate, and parliamentary participation. There is a strong hope for future politicians to learn to open their hearts and agree to disagree based on national interest and national consensus.

To that end, Cambodia can learn from Japan’s mature democracy that is less antagonistic and agitating than some Western versions of democracy, which are now being undermined by populism, extreme nationalism and ideological polarization.

Economic resilience and diversified economy

Despite the threat from the European Union to withdraw preferential trade treatment under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, Cambodia should be able to assert clearly, “No EBA, no problem.”

Looking back to the past, one should not underestimate Cambodia’s resilience. Cambodia was able to withstand the 12-year economic embargo by many nations starting from 1979 when the  genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was toppled with support from Vietnamese forces. It also withstood the economic crisis in 2008 following the sudden massive withdrawal of Korean investors due to the global financial crisis. Cambodia also manifested its resilience when Thailand decided to crack down on illegal laborers in 2014, and eventually ousted nearly 200,000 jobless Cambodians.

The current macro-economic stability even provides sober ground to believe in Cambodia’s resilience as compared with the previous economic shocks. For instance, the government collected more than US$4.5 billion in revenue from customs and taxation during the first nine months of 2019, with tax collection exceeding the target by $800 million. Moreover, the government has also reserved around $3 billion to cope with any possible shock.

Apart from preventive measures against external economic shocks, domestically, there is hope that Cambodia will be able to encourage healthy and diversified economic competition among domestic actors. For instance, the government can encourage tycoons to invest in new industries or factories that create jobs instead of heavily investing in sectors that do not diversify the economic base or create sufficient jobs for the young workforce.

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Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a career diplomat currently working as an adviser to the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, where he covers various portfolios related to multilateral cooperation. For academic purposes, he also supports the Asian Vision Institute as its strategic adviser.

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