The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has recently defined a flexible foreign policy plan, projected to span the next five years. This strategic approach is a reflection of their adaptation to the dynamic geopolitical landscape, shaped by competitive influences of the world’s major powers.

Earlier this year, the policy was formulated and finally shared with the public on July 25. This release followed the unofficial results from the July 23 general election. The results indicated a sweeping win for the CPP, with the party securing 120 out of the 125 National Assembly seats, suggesting a strong mandate for their leadership in the coming term.

The document stated that the 2023-2028 policy essentially extends the previous programme which spanned the 2018-2023 period.

Global, regional competition, ongoing conflicts

According to the CPP, the foreseeable future will witness a sustained rivalry between the US and China. The US aims to retain its strong global influence, while China seeks a more prominent role in international affairs.

The policy document highlighted the ongoing US strategy of rallying allies and likeminded nations to restrain China’s growing power. On the other hand, China, the world’s second-largest economy, is steadfast in its ambition to build a modern socialist country across all domains.

The CPP predicts that the future of international relations will largely hinge on the US-China dynamics. The relationship between these superpowers is expected to shape the world order, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

The document cites various US-led partnerships and initiatives in this region including the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the AUKUS trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK and US.

These US-led initiatives have been established in response to China’s growing influence, encapsulated in its ambitious projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative.

“The problem is competition between China and the US will continue to place pressure on the countries of our region; at the same time the two superpowers continue to have economic relationships with and commercial and security interests for all countries,” stated the CPP document.

Cambodia’s policy responses

The CPP recognises the Asia-Pacific region as a battleground for global powers and emerging forces alike. Due to its economic, commercial and geopolitical significance, it is drawing attention from countries such as China, India, Japan and Southeast Asia, all seeking to increase their influence.

In this context, the CPP sees ASEAN as a buffer against external pressure. They also consider it as a platform for fostering relationships with external partners and actors through mechanisms of cooperation and consultation.

The policy acknowledges that Cambodia, to some extent, will be influenced by external conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine war, the Myanmar crisis and conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea.

In response to this extensive spectrum of issues, Cambodia is resolute in safeguarding its core interests, as dictated by the Kingdom’s Constitution. The country remains dedicated to implementing foreign policies that ensure national integrity, sovereignty and independence, while maintaining peace and stability and striving for socio-economic development.

To this end, Cambodia is set to leverage the combined efforts of the party, the government, the legislature and other public institutions. This move will guard against foreign interference in Cambodian affairs, protect the interests of Cambodians abroad, and uphold national honour and prestige.

“Cambodia will maintain continued implementation of an independent foreign policy based on law and respect for the rules, purposes, and principles outlined in the charters of the UN and ASEAN,” said the document.

The CPP stressed that Cambodia will adopt a courteous yet firm, flexible and thoughtful diplomacy in response to shifting strategies and geopolitics. Efforts will be made to restore traditional relations and establish cooperation with new allies.

Cambodia will also actively participate in regional and global initiatives aimed at maintaining and enhancing peace, stability and prosperity. The nation is committed to combating the negative effects of climate change, transnational crimes, terrorism and infectious diseases.

Having contributed significantly to peacekeeping forces under the UN, Cambodia plans to maintain its involvement in such missions. Additionally, it intends to play a role in mediation, fostering dialogue as a means of resolving political conflicts.

On the economic front, the incoming CPP-led government intends to bolster relations with existing and new partners. It aims to enforce economic diplomacy strategies initiated in 2021, which include promoting investments, supporting the export industry, expanding markets for local products and boosting the tourism sector. These measures are aimed at fulfilling Cambodia’s ambition to achieve upper-middle income country status by 2030.

A key priority will be to invest in human resources and training within the realm of diplomacy. This effort will necessitate time, resources, incentives, and intellectual capital to attract and retain skilled individuals.

What analysts say

Following the release of this policy, experts have noted that Cambodia needs a strategy that can adapt to global and regional shifts while also maintaining its neutrality.

Public policy analyst Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), commented that the CPP’s foreign policy is reflective of the rapidly changing international landscape.

Vannarith added that as a small and open country, Cambodia needs to remain adaptive, firm on core principles and flexible in its tactics.

“State diplomacy, parliamentary diplomacy, party diplomacy and people diplomacy need to be further synchronised so as consistency in foreign policy and position can be enhanced,” he said.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, opined that Cambodia needs to uphold a policy of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. He pointed out that the Kingdom should pursue peaceful co-existence with its neighbours and other nations, as stipulated by the Constitution.

Phea highlighted the pivotal role of Prime Minister Hun Sen in upholding Cambodia’s neutral stance in foreign policy and diplomacy.

“His guidance remains essential for the new generation of leaders,” he said.

He further noted the various global challenges that persist, such as the crises in Myanmar and Ukraine, along with other economic and security concerns. He acknowledged that the world is entering an era where nations, including China, are exploring avenues for growth and security beyond the traditional US-led order.

“The prime minister is acutely aware of that new reality,” he said.

Highlighting the strategic approach of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Phea pointed out several principles guiding Cambodia’s diplomacy. These principles include abstaining from using force, refraining from supporting invasions of independent nations, opposing the fragmentation of states, rejecting unlawful occupations and avoiding interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

Hun Sen has also committed to prohibiting foreign military presence in Cambodia and disallowing support for invasions of other countries. This, in essence, delineates the Kingdom’s resolve to maintain its sovereignty while advocating for peaceful international relations.