In August 2017, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be 50 years old. ASEAN was established on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok by the five founding member countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The major aims for the birth of ASEAN were to encourage economic cooperation, promote regional peace and stability, and create platforms for mutual assistance and collaboration in economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and administrative areas. The concepts of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs, and the peaceful settlement of interstate disputes are, among others, fundamental principles to which ASEAN tries to adhere.
Throughout these 50 years, ASEAN has both faced challenges and at the same time enjoyed prosperity as it weathered many storms in its own region, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and the global arena. Cambodia, which will celebrate her eighteen years in ASEAN late this April, has had to confront the challenges and seize the available opportunities this regional group has had to offer. To informally commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN and to toast Cambodia’s 18th birthday in ASEAN, this article will examine the potential challenges and opportunities Cambodia, a small state and the youngest ASEAN member, has experienced and will experience in the immediate and distant future.
Challenges for Cambodia
Fifteen years ago, a Cambodian scholar predicted that Cambodia would face three categories of challenges while it was trying to secure its place in the regional association. In the short-term, during its preparation for ASEAN membership, Cambodia would face many obstacles including its lack of human and financial resources, poor legal framework, and weak institutional organization. In the medium- to long-term, Cambodia would have to address economic, diplomatic, and financial challenges, as well as tackle challenges related to national prestige, borders, sovereignty, legal and institutional framework reform, and lack of strategic thinking.
Over a decade later, many ASEAN observers and commentators also saw challenges which lay ahead for Cambodia as she prepared to join the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Sowath Rana and Alexandre Ardichvili, for example, listed six main human resource development (HRD) challenges Cambodia would face as it joined the AEC in 2015, including the education and employment mismatch, higher education challenges, technical and vocational education and training challenges, HRD challenges in the private sector, limited awareness and engagement in ASEAN and AEC processes, and technology infrastructure challenges.
Amongst all the challenges, however, this article argues that the strategic challenge — mediating ASEAN and China over the South China Sea issue — is Cambodia’s greatest challenge at present. Cambodia has been condemned twice for her decision to ally herself with China and block ASEAN from issuing joint communiqués which criticize China for her assertiveness and expansionist policy in the South China Sea. With the South China Sea dispute still on the horizon, Cambodia is likely to face this strategic challenge again because this small state cannot afford to lose China for ASEAN or vice versa.
Cambodia has taken advantage of her ASEAN membership to salvage her once non-existent relations with ASEAN member states and ASEAN Dialogue Partners.
Although Cambodia is not one of the claimant states involved in the South China Sea conflict, her membership in ASEAN puts her in a difficult position to help settle the disagreement between her ASEAN counterparts and her closet ally, China. Thus, it is a big challenge for Cambodia to strike a good balance in her endeavors to help mediate between the conflicting parties. As China is described and seen as Cambodia’s most trustworthy friend and largest provider of aid, loans, and grants, the possibility of seeing Cambodia jump on China’s bandwagon could not be higher.
Furthermore, to expect Cambodia to act against her own national interests in order to preserve ASEAN’s centrality is highly unlikely to happen, even though ASEAN remains the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. In this regard, the next chapter of Cambodia’s foreign policy will definitely play out in favor of China despite peer pressure from the ASEAN states.
Opportunities for Cambodia
Despite these many challenges, there are enormous opportunities for Cambodia as an ASEAN member. From economic to social advantages, and from diplomatic to strategic benefits, Cambodia has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy tremendous opportunities as the country strives to keep up with its more developed ASEAN friends and exert its influence on the region.
Economically, Cambodia has greatly benefitted from ASEAN as it joined the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2004. It has also attracted foreign direct investment from ASEAN member states, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. While Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to strengthen cooperation in bilateral trade and investment, the two-way trade volume between Vietnam and Cambodia, according to Khmer Times, reached USD 3.37 billion in 2015 and USD 2.38 billion in 2016. These figures, however, were below the 2015 target of USD 5 billion both countries have pledged.
In terms of social prospects, Cambodia’s ASEAN membership has helped to increase opportunities for Cambodians through the mobility scheme for skilled labor, improved access to cheaper and a wider range of imported goods and services, and improved education and health services in the Kingdom. More importantly, by joining the ASEAN and later the AEC, people-to-people connectivity between Cambodia and the other ASEAN members has increased.
As for the diplomatic gains, Cambodia has taken advantage of her ASEAN membership to salvage her once non-existent relations with ASEAN member states and ASEAN Dialogue Partners, particularly Australia, China, Japan, and the United States. Until more recently, Cambodia’s foreign policy has significantly been strengthened and Cambodia has put in a great deal of effort to upgrade its diplomatic relations with its nearest neighbors, ASEAN members, and regional and global powers.
Noticeably, Cambodia-Russia bilateral relations have recently been restored and strengthened, with exchanges of high-level visits and greater mutual support and cooperation between the two countries. Likewise, Cambodia-China bilateral relations have reached a new historic high, with Xi Jinping’s first presidential visit to Cambodia last year, immediately following Cambodia’s refusal to partake in an ASEAN joint communiqué critical of China’s claims and policies in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Strategically, Cambodia’s geopolitical location and ASEAN status, together with current political developments in the region, have granted this small state a special privilege to assert its influence and exercise its power in the regional group and the wider Asia-Pacific region. If Cambodia were not an ASEAN member, she would have found it hard to capture Chinese attention and enjoy China’s financial aid — with its controversial no-strings-attached policy — arising from Cambodia’s intervention in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
Thus, in spite of the great challenges, Cambodia seems to be able to grasp considerable opportunities along its zigzag ASEAN path. In this respect, it might not be wise to weigh the challenges against the opportunities for Cambodia because it has been a mixed blessing for the country. It would be best, nevertheless, for Cambodia to continue to engage with countries in the region and regional initiatives like the Greater Mekong Subregion and ASEAN, or else it will run the risk of becoming too dependent on China.