Malaysia: Foreign Minister Anifah, don’t be ridiculous

July 26, 2017

Dear Foreign Minister Anifah Aman,

You know me and I  know you too since we used to chat on the phone and exchange sms and e-mail on foreign policy, especially on matters relating to Wisma Putra and ASEAN. I have always thought of you as the most level-headed Minister in Najib’s cabinet. That has all changed after reading your comment on Malaysiakini today.

You are wasting your time trying to defend Prime Minister Najib Razak who has lost public trust at home, and blemished his standing abroad. In doing so, not once but twice, you have put your personal reputation on the line by sounding ridiculous.

It does not take a knowledge of Malaysian history to know that the UMNO-BN government led by Najib Razak is corrupt, incompetent, arrogant and dishonest; it has mismanaged our economy. That is common knowledge. I have, for example, lived under 6 Prime Ministers and I know that the 1MBD scandal is but one example of how Najib achieved the distinction of the worst of them. Everything you write below is a distortion of the facts, which are known to all Malaysians and the world at large.

ASEAN Community 2015As Foreign Minister, you should be concerned about Malaysia’s international image.  You would be well advised to worry about Malaysia’s role as the ASEAN Chair 2015 and work in earnest on your people-centered 2015 ASEAN Community project. Right now, this important regional commitment has taken a back seat because Prime Minister Najib is pre-occupied with his own political survival.

Furthermore, I find it  hard to believe that the Wall Street Journal is ignorant about what is happening in Malaysia when you assume that their researchers and journalists do not know our history and politics. The problem with people like you and your Cabinet colleagues is that you refuse to accept the views of intelligent and knowledgeable Malaysians and other observers of the Malaysian political economy. Malaysia  has become a laughing stock of the international community. If you have pride and dignity, you should resign from your post and stop being a circus clown. –Din Merican

Malaysia: Foreign Minister advises Wall Street Journal– Know and Understand Malaysian History

COMMENT by Foreign Minister Anifah Aman: The Wall Street Journal takes aim at Malaysia, but once again displays a woeful lack of knowledge and understanding of our country and its history.

Malaysia has been a democracy since independence in 1957. Elections are fiercely contested, and the opposition won five out of the country’s 13 states in 2008. Political discourse is vibrant and noisy.

The “voices of dissent” that the opposition’s former leader, Anwar Ibrahim, claims not to be able to hear are dominant in Malaysia’s online news media, which has far more readers here than the print press. If anyone doubts Malaysians’ “fundamental liberties”, they can easily see for themselves how free anyone is to criticise the government on these news sites.

Anwar mentions the recent Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) as “encroaching” on those liberties. But he fails to mention that it explicitly states that “No person shall be arrested and detained solely for his political belief or political activity”.

Pota in fact further secures the liberties of Malaysians: both their freedom to speak out, and their freedom from extremists who pose a real threat to the country. Anwar may not take this threat seriously, but the Malaysian government does.

The WSJ gives Anwar the platform to raise false and politically motivated allegations of corruption against our prime minister. Perhaps it might have been relevant for the WSJ to mention that Anwar himself was convicted of corruption in 1999. The verdict was not overturned.

He is currently in jail after a legal process that lasted years. He was first acquitted, then convicted, allowed to appeal, and only when that failed did he go to prison. If he truly believed in his innocence, he could have submitted his own DNA to the court. If the charge had been “trumped up”, as the WSJ falsely says, that would have proven it. But he did not – hardly the action of an innocent man. Far from “sowing communal and religious animosity”, the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak early on launched the 1Malaysia policy.

This is the greatest attempt in Malaysia’s history to forge a national identity that includes all races and religions, and the Prime Minister regularly attends the festivals of non-Muslims, going to churches and temples to share the celebrations of fellow Malaysians.

anifah_amanUNAnwar and the opposition, however, never supported 1Malaysia. Why not? Was it because Anwar himself had a well-documented history of rabble-rousing and extremism, as well as of spouting anti-Semitic remarks – as the WSJ well knows but again fails to mention.

The suggestion that Malaysia is in danger of becoming a “failed state” would be laughable – if it were not for the fact that some people take Anwar seriously and will believe what he says, no matter how wild or imaginary.

Here is what some other people have said about Malaysia recently:

  • Bloomberg rated Malaysia as the world’s 5th most promising emerging market in 2015.
  • The IMF’s latest report on our country was titled: “Favourable Prospects for Malaysia’s Diversified Economy”.
  • A Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote: “Malaysian political discourse is becoming far more open than it was even a decade ago.”
  • The ratings agency Fitch recently upgraded the outlook for Malaysia.

This is the truth about Malaysia today. It is a pity that the WSJ has fallen for desperate, unfounded allegations by a politician and presented them as facts – thereby taking sides in internal Malaysian politics.

Dato’Seri ANIFAH AMAN is Malaysia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The Economist: Najib set to stay as Prime Minister

July 26, 2015

Malaysia: The Economist: Najib set to stay as Prime Minister

by The Malay Mail

Obama Najib GolfObama betting on Najib for TPPA

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is likely to remain in charge despite growing calls for his resignation over the 1 Malaysia Development Board (1MDB) financial scandal, largely due to the lack of “obvious substitutes”, The Economist has said.

In an analysis published two days ago, the London-based publication said it is unlikely that Najib, who is also UMNO President, will vacate his post as he has managed to retain at least surface support from his party.

The Economist noted that there is potential in deputy Prime Minister and UMNO Deputy President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and his cousin and Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein — who is also an UMNO Vice-President — to take over the helm.

“But neither man seems any more likely than Mr Najib to find the vim required to rejuvenate UMNO, which has grown quarrelsome and complacent after six decades in power — and which, in stemming its ebbing popularity, has taken to exploiting old fears among ethnic Malays that their prospects are threatened by Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian minorities,” it said in an article titled Soldiering on.

Najib is facing intense backlash over the conduct of the state-owned 1MDB, which reportedly chalked up RM42 billion in debts and saddled with allegations of dubious deals that critics claim have carved out a significant chunk out of public coffers.

Earlier this month, US-based daily Wall Street Journal, citing documents from Malaysian investigators currently scrutinising the troubled 1MDB’s financials, claimed that a money trail showed that US$700 million (RM2.6 billion) were moved among government agencies, banks and companies before it ended up in what is believed to be the personal accounts of Najib.

The Economist2The bulk of the money was said to have been transferred shortly before the 13th general elections in May 2013, where the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) managed to hold on to power despite losing the popular vote.

But Najib has insisted that he has never taken any money for “personal gain” and accused former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad of conspiring with foreign media outlets against him.

The Economist said the controversy will erode Najib’s standing among Malaysians even if his name is cleared, leading to a situation where it would be hard to “imagine UMNO sticking by him until the next generation”.

But the business publication also noted that there were rumours of Najib weighing a reshuffling of Cabinet, in what is believed may be a bid to “silence” his critics and dissent.

The Prime Minister also has a fractured opposition working to his advantage, especially in the absence of opposition icon Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim who is currently serving a five-year jail term for sodomy.

“If he (Najib) can blast through this crisis his opponents may well wonder what, if anything, will bring him down,” it said.

ASEAN and the Lessons of Greece

July 25, 2015

ASEAN and the Lessons of Greece

by Dr. Munir Majid

“Thank God we don’t have a Common Currency and never should have.”

There are therefore nascent possibilities and challenges which should concentrate ASEAN minds as they consider the Greek drama in the EU’s eurozone beyond “Thank God, we do not have a single currency, and never should have.” We cannot be immunised from the unintended and unanticipated consequences of community-building. We have to have the institutions and imagination to manage them.–Dr. Munir Majid

Dr Munir MajidEUROPE has been glued to the Grexit television screen for the longest time. Going on and on for at least five years, each episode of whether Greece will remain in the eurozone or not has run longer than the longest Tamil movie of yore (although we have our own MIC version, with 1MDB trying to play catch-up).

What are the lessons for ASEAN of the EU’s Greek tragedy? No doubt the first thing that will trip out is: Thank God we do not have a common currency. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface there are deep issues involved, so many currents, cross-currents and counter-currents in the management of regional integration.

I will highlight three of the more profound: fiscal discipline; national sovereignty; and community negotiation process.

Fiscal Discipline

Fiscal discipline is actually easy to define, but so difficult to uphold when the freewheeling genie has been out of the bottle for so long with no inclination of coming back in. Under the EU’s Stability Growth Pact government deficit has to be not more than 3% of GDP and debt 60%, something characterised more in the violation than the adherence. Nothing has been done about this for years.

In the case of Greece over the last five years they were supposed to be brought down, but the numbers for the fiscal deficit went up again and the country is up to its ears in debt, coming to 200% of GDP after averaging an already unsustainable 177%.

The other side of the austerity equation is unemployment which has hit 25.6%. (Unemployment in Indonesia as a result of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis was 30%; lowest European unemployment is in Germany at 4.7%).

Youth unemployment in Greece stands at 60%. The Greek economy has shrunk by 25% since the first IMF aid package in 2010. The government and people are saying they cannot take any more, but the creditors – on whom the Greeks are dependent for more bailout and interest servicing packages like an opiate – are saying not enough has been done in a sustained fashion to bring debt and the deficit down.

The Greeks have been used to many things which the creditors now insist on taking away from them. You cannot live beyond your means forever. The chicken is coming home to roost.

From the seven main points of the agreement reached on the night of July 13 for a new bailout package of 86 billion euros, it is clear Greece is now being pushed right against the wall – including what many in the country declare to be violation of its sovereignty.

Cutting pensions

While certain requirements such as cutting pension spending and increasing revenue, through seamless imposition of the top VAT rate of 23% for instance, might be considered par for the course in these bailout situations, the insistence on the transfer of up to 50 billion euros of “valuable Greek assets” to a new independently managed fund, as a form of collateral, was felt by Greeks to be rubbing their noses in the dirt.

National Sovereignty

Alexis and Angela

Sovereignty, what sovereignty? If Greece wants to remain in the euro and needs all the bailout money, including money to service existing bailout funds, has the country got any alternative?

The Greek Prime Minister may quote Paul Krugman on the pain and damage all the austerity requirements are causing the economy, or even appeal to a European sense of history by comparing them to the punitive terms of the Peace of Versailles in 1919 (which historians assert were the root cause of the Second World War as Germany struck back to wipe off the shame), but has he got any other option?

If you need the money, what can you do? South-East Asians may remember that picture in 1998 of the then IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus standing over the cowed former Indonesian President Suharto, as he signed away Indonesian macroeconomic sovereignty. From profligacy, it might be said, to loss of an important part of national sovereignty.

In the negotiation of the new Greek bailout deal this month – which still may undergo many twists and turns – a feature has been the predominance of Germany in the EU and in the eurozone (comprising 19 of the 28 members of the EU). It is after all the largest creditor nation and economy. If pretence was set aside, it is also the most powerful country in Europe (which arrangements at the end of the Second World War were intended to avoid – but that is a different story).

Every member country has a veto of course, but in negotiating the outline and details of the rescue package for Greece, Germany has led the way all this while and its commitment is indispensable, however much the French try to give the impression of having an eminent role as well.


So, how do we look at it all from an ASEAN perspective? The first instinct – thank God we do not have a single currency – is of course to be expected. But the thinking on what has been happening in Europe and on how relevant it is to AASEAN should not end there.

We do have big states and small states. We may say our negotiating and decision-making processes are different – and national sovereignty is untouchable. But this is too pat and shallow. The process of community-building is moving ahead. The voice of bigger countries does carry greater weight. However if it is in the service of what is good for the larger whole, there is not much to be afraid of.

The changeable predispositions of member states, however, have to be managed. Indeed, what a significant member state DOES NOT DO also affects ASEAN – as is the case now with the growing uncomfortable feeling that Indonesia under President Jokowi is not so enamoured of the regional grouping.

Indonesia therefore is critical to ASEAN. What and how it thinks, what happens in that country, have Asean impact. Thus engagement, with Indonesia particularly but also among all member countries, is most important. ASEAN needs, at this stage of its development, to have a Minister for ASEAN Affairs in each member country. The prospects and challenges need to be a focus in every national administration.

Economic management

With respect to economic management, while there is no single currency, there are threats to ALL ASEAN economies of mismanagement in ONE, especially a significant economy. Contagion is always a risk. With increased intra-regional trade (although now only a quarter of the total trade), there will be knock-on effects across the region.

Importantly – let us not forget – we are talking of ASEAN as a region, one single economy, with the prospect of the most promising growth in consumer demand and economic size (coming up to 4th in the world by 2050). ASEAN is an asset class. With the herd instincts of markets, reverse flows caused by fear of contagion can quickly develop into a regional crisis.

While global arrangements such as with the IMF remain, let us also not forget we have an untested multilateral currency swap system that includes three East Asian partner countries to address potential and actual balance of payments and short-term liquidity difficulties – the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (CMIM). The US$240bil fund is 20% Asean and 80% China, Japan and South Korea. The commitments from each country are really promissory notes, and a country in difficulty can draw up to 2.5 times its committed amount.

Will the support always be forthcoming? Will political differences not get in the way? Not to mention an assessment of whether the country facing difficulty has exercised fiscal discipline in the management of its economy. The CMIM has an institution, AMRO (ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office), to monitor and analyse regional economies in support of its decision-making process.

The central bank governors deciding on requests for support will also rely on AMRO reports and input, and there could be conditions attached to such support, whether the 6-month Breaking Line or the One-year Stability Facility. There could be expectation, frustration, anger and discord.

There are therefore nascent possibilities and challenges which should concentrate ASEAN minds as they consider the Greek drama in the EU’s eurozone beyond “Thank God, we do not have a single currency, and never should have.” We cannot be immunised from the unintended and unanticipated consequences of community-building. We have to have the institutions and imagination to manage them.

Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid, Chairman of Bank Muamalat and Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Cambodia’s betwixt and between Foreign Policy

July 20, 2015

Cambodia’s betwixt and between Foreign Policy

by  Leng Thearith, UNSW Canberra

Xi and Cambodia's Hun Sen

Following the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, the chair, Cambodia, was largely blamed for the ASEAN foreign ministers’ failure to produce a joint communiqué over the South China Sea dispute.

The sticking point was that the ASEAN claimant states — particularly the Philippines and Vietnam — insisted on using strong language to criticise China’s growing assertiveness. Manila wished to incorporate the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by China and the Philippines, in the communiqué. And Hanoi wanted the document to express criticism of Beijing’s growing provocation at sea. For Vietnam, one example of this was the cutting of a Vietnamese oil exploration cable by Chinese fishing vessels in May 2011. Another was China unilaterally granting nine oil blocks in disputed areas to foreign firms in June 2012.

But the proposals to include these respective concerns of the Philippines and Vietnam were rejected by Cambodia. Phnom Penh viewed these as bilateral rather than multilateral issues. The chair’s continuous refusal to assent to including criticism of China led to the accusation that the country had completely ignored the interests of the region as a whole in favour of its own national interest. To put it even more bluntly, some saw Cambodia as a proxy for China, ardently advancing its patron state’s interests.

Is this claim justified?

One of the reasons Cambodia sought to join ASEAN was to gain protection from its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. These larger neighbours have throughout history worried Cambodian leaders, including the late King Ang Duong, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, General Lon Nol, Pol Pot, and even Prime Minister Hun Sen. General Lon Nol and Pol Pot chose strong external allies (the US and China, respectively) to counter the threat from its neighbours. On the other hand, Hun Sen has chosen a more nuanced foreign policy approach by hedging against both China and ASEAN, particularly Vietnam.

Since Cambodia was admitted into ASEAN in 1999, its strategy has been partly driven by an expectation that ASEAN would act as a counter against Cambodia’s neighbours. But the country was disappointed by ASEAN’s muted response to the armed conflicts between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding the Preah Vihear temple. When Phnom Penh called for ASEAN support in 2008–10, ASEAN countries — particularly the Philippines and Vietnam — showed little interest, even though their indifference went against the main regional principle of ASEAN; that is, the prevention of armed conflicts and disputes between member states.

The reaction of Manila and Hanoi towards Phnom Penh’s request for ASEAN intervention is worth analysing. The Philippines initially seemed as if it would take a bold stance. Manila accused the Thai government of attempting to avoid the agreements it had reached with Cambodia, but thereafter Manila claimed its position had been misrepresented by the media. Meanwhile, a Vietnamese spokesperson made a formal statement that the Vietnamese government expected both Cambodia and Thailand to resolve the conflict peacefully and amicably, a statement Cambodia was not expecting. Hanoi may have reckoned that an interventionist stance as per Cambodia’s request would harm its economic interests in Thailand.

Sensing that ASEAN had not taken the security interests of its smaller members seriously, Phnom Penh started losing faith in the association — seeking to attract the attention of the other ASEAN states by defying Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea issue at the 2012 ASEAN Summit. But this does not necessarily mean that Cambodia decided to completely abandon the ASEAN countries and opt for China. In fact, Cambodia recognises that ASEAN, and especially Thailand and Vietnam, is vital to its interests. These interests, furthermore, are best served by maintaining a balance between China and ASEAN countries.

If Cambodia were a Chinese proxy, such a balance would be unnecessary: Cambodia’s strategic security would be totally underwritten by its patron, China. Phnom Penh would be unable to maintain close relations with other countries, especially China’s enemies and competitors.

But the Cambodia–Vietnam relationship remains strong, as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent visit to Hanoi showed. In December 2013, he visited Vietnam amid rising tensions in Cambodia after accusations of irregularities in the national election held earlier that year. Despite his party’s declining popularity, partly due to Cambodia’s close relations with Vietnam, Hun Sen still managed to visit to Hanoi and meet senior political leaders. More surprisingly, he publicly spoke in the Vietnamese language to create a sense of amity and indicate his willingness to draw closer to Vietnam.

The position of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest opposition party in Cambodia, towards Hanoi is also interesting. The CNRP, notorious for its hostile policy towards Vietnam, has recently promised to grant Cambodian citizenship to Vietnamese immigrants born in Cambodia if it wins the national election.

Maintaining a balance between China and ASEAN will likely remain the cornerstone of Cambodian foreign policy. Without such a balance, Cambodia risks being cursed by its geography.

Phnom Penh cannot afford to be a Chinese proxy. While China is of great economic interest to Cambodia, Vietnam is also vital to Cambodian security given the country’s geographical proximity. Balancing its foreign policy between China and Vietnam (and ASEAN as a whole) would be the wisest option for Cambodia. At the same time, the fiasco of the 2012 ASEAN summit should demonstrate to other ASEAN members the necessity of responding to the security concerns of its smaller members.

Leng Thearith is a PhD candidate in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA).

The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Professor Leszek Buszynski, currently a Fellow Researcher at the Hedley Bull Center, for his valuable advice and comments on the article.


Cambodia and China: Chinese Investment and Aid

July 18, 2015

Cambodia and China: Chinese Investment and Aid

by Heng Pheakdey, EISD

The China–Cambodia relationship has reached new peaks in recent years. China is now Cambodia’s largest foreign investor, a major donor of aid and an increasingly important trading partner. But this growing relationship is also accompanied by renewed controversies.

China undeniably plays a crucial role in Cambodia’s economic development. China invested a total of US$9.17 billion between 1994 and 2012. Chinese investment in the textiles industry has increased Cambodia’s exports and created employment for thousands of women in rural areas, while investment in the energy sector, particularly in hydropower development, has helped reduce Cambodia’s chronic energy shortages. China is also a major source of foreign assistance for Cambodia. By 2012, Chinese loans and grants to Cambodia reached US$2.7 billion, making it the country’s second-largest donor after Japan. Cambodia has been using China’s so-called ‘no strings attached’ aid to build roads and bridges, helping to improve the country’s much needed infrastructure.

But behind these impressive numbers lie hidden agendas and serious social and political implications. While Chinese investment and aid is much needed for economic development, China’s unquestioning approach to how its aid and investment money is distributed and used has exacerbated corruption, deteriorated good governance and human rights, and ruined Cambodia’s resources and natural environment. Human rights activists have often accused Chinese textile factories of abusing worker’s rights, while China’s hydropower investments have destroyed protected areas, forest biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Samdech Techo Hun Sen

In return for its generous financial aid, China has exerted its influence on Cambodia to propel its own political interests. Cambodia’s decision to deport 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers to China upon Beijing’s request in 2009 is a clear example of this. In another instance, after receiving millions of dollar in pledges from China last year, Cambodia refrained from discussing the South China Sea disputes during the ASEAN Summit, which was harshly criticised by the international community and resulted in the failure by ASEAN’s foreign ministers to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN history. Cambodia has also been accused of favouring Chinese investment, putting China’s investment interests above that of other nations. According to a report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, 50 per cent of the land concessions granted since 1994 — totalling 4.6 million hectares — were given to Chinese companies to invest in mining, hydropower and agriculture in Cambodia.

There are concerns that the government is at risk of losing its autonomy. If it were to rely solely on China, Cambodia also risks losing face and trust from the international community, and its role in ASEAN might be marginalised if it continues to put China ahead of ASEAN.

There is no doubt that Cambodia needs China’s assistance to further its economic development. Likewise, China sees Cambodia as an important ally for exercising greater influence in Southeast Asia and counterbalancing the United States. Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Pan Guangxue recently said that the positive relationship China and Cambodia have built over the years serves as a role model of friendship between countries of different social systems. He is convinced that, with the careful guidance of its leaders and the efforts of its people, China and Cambodia can further deepen their mutual trust for one another and improve cooperation, so as to develop the relationship to a greater level.

To ensure this long-lasting relationship is mutually beneficial, the two nations must work together to improve transparency, promote participatory and inclusive development by involving all relevant stakeholders, and minimise environmental degradation. Cambodia must strengthen its institutions, implement policies that encourage responsible investment and link aid to poverty reduction. China needs to rebuild its image as a good neighbour and international citizen — one that is accountable for its foreign investment and promotes sustainable development.

Heng Pheakdey is a doctoral researcher at the UV University Amsterdam and Founding Director of Enrich Institute for Sustainable Development.

Foreign Policy: Cambodia- China Relations

July 15, 2015

Foreign Policy: Cambodia – China Relations

According to conventional wisdom, the international system leaves small states less room for maneuver. Cambodia is no exception. Since the kingdom won its independence from France in 1953, it had been preoccupied with protecting that independence, as well as its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

During the Cold War, Cambodian foreign policymakers  tried various approaches, from neutrality to alliances with major power(s) and, worst of all, isolationism. Yet Cambodia remained a victim of power politics, and ended up with a civil war and some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Early in the 21st century, China has emerged as a regional and global power. China’s power and influence can be felt in all corners of the globe, most evidently in continental Southeast Asia. In this context, the Cambodia-China bilateral relationship has experienced a remarkable transformation over the last decade or so. Although rooted in mistrust due to the involvement of China in Cambodia’s civil war and social strife, especially Beijing’s support for the Khmer Rouge regime, bilateral ties have noticeably consolidated and improved since 1997.

In December 2010, the two countries upgraded their bilateral ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation.’ Cambodia continues to attach great economic and strategic importance to China’s rise.

Economically, China plays an increasingly important role in the socio-economic development of Cambodia as its primary trading partner, largest source of foreign direct investment, and top provider of development assistance and soft loans. Noticeably, two-way trade between Cambodia and China grew from $2.34 billion in 2012 to around $3.3 billion in 2013. Recently, the two countries agreed to boost their bilateral trade to reach the target of $5 billion by 2017. Similarly, Chinese investment in Cambodia in 2013 rose 65 percent, to $435.82 million compared to $263.59 million in 2012. More importantly, Chinese loans and grants to Cambodia reached $2.7 billion in 2012, making it one of the latter’s largest donors. Moreover, Cambodia will reap enormous benefits from new Chinese initiatives such as the Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Militarily, China is the biggest source of assistance to Cambodia’s armed forces in various forms. In May 2012, Cambodia and China signed a military cooperation agreement in which China agreed to provide $17 million to Cambodia to build military hospitals and military training schools for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and promised to continue training military personnel in Cambodia. The latter is, according to Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh, a “great contribution to improving the Cambodian army’s capacity in national defense.” It is worth noting that Chinese military assistance increased remarkably at a time when Cambodia badly needed to build up its defense forces due to the increasingly tense border dispute with Thailand from 2008 to 2011.

Victim of Location

In geopolitical and strategic terms, Cambodia had been a victim of its location as a country sandwiched between two powerful and historically antagonistic neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Cambodia vividly suggests that over the six hundred years following the fall of the Khmer Empire, Thailand and later Vietnam regularly defeated Khmer armies and annexed Khmer territories. The two countries had always attempted to impose their suzerainty over Cambodia. Cambodia’s acceptance of the French protectorate in 1863 was an escape from suzerainty.

The eruption of a border conflict with Thailand from 2008 to 2011 reminded Cambodian leaders that its stronger neighbors remain a security threat to the kingdom’s territorial integrity. It also prompted Cambodian leaders to rethink the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. In fact, since becoming a member of ASEAN in 1999, the regional grouping has always been the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodian policymakers were convinced that ASEAN would be a crucial regional platform through which their country could safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as promote its strategic and economic interests. However, it seems that Cambodia’s confidence in ASEAN has faded due to the grouping’s ineffective response to the Cambodia-Thailand border dispute.

Most recently, Cambodia has had problems with its neighbor to the east, Vietnam, apparently due to sensitive issues related to border disputes and illegal migration, as witnessed by tensions that culminated in a violent clash on June 29, 2015 between Cambodian border activists and Vietnamese residents along the border. In an unprecedented move, Cambodia’s foreign ministry sent a dozen protest notes to urge Vietnamese authorities to halt all activities along the border that undermine the status quo.

Somewhat unusually, between July 2014 and June 2015, Cambodian authorities deported 2,058 illegal Vietnamese immigrants. Dynamic political developments in Cambodia in the aftermath of the July 2013 general elections – particularly the diffusion of the foreign policy-making process with the stronger influence of Cambodia’s opposition, a more vocal civil society voice in national politics, and the negative historical perception of Vietnam in Cambodia – play an important part in the prickly relationship. A general strategic misalignment between Phnom Penh and Hanoi is the underlying factor.

Regardless, while the reasons for the deterioration of Cambodia-Vietnam relations remain uncertain, it is certain that the more perceived unease or threat Phnom Penh has from its neighbors, the closer Cambodia will grow to China. This explains Phnom Penh’s inconsistency on the South China Sea, with its latest position actually that of Beijing.


Broadly, Cambodia might opt for alternatives by strengthening its relations with other major powers, such as Japan, India, and the United States. However, there are certain challenges and constraints for Cambodia in pursuing this approach. Japan has long been one of its most important development partners. However, the problem for Japan in the eyes of Cambodian foreign policymakers is that the former’s military and strategic role in the region is limited due to its pacifist constitution and perceived lack of a foreign policy independent from the United States.

As for India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy sounds promising as far as India’s increasing engagement in Southeast Asia is concerned. However, there is a perception in the region that India still lacks both the capacity and the commitment to successfully implement its policy.

Finally, although the United States has been playing a crucial role in maintaining and promoting peace and stability in Asia, there remains a huge gap in Cambodia-U.S. relations. The gap is the result of a strategic misalignment between the two nations, a trust deficit between the two countries’ leaders, and other sensitive issues hindering the bilateral relationship including the United States’ focus on human rights and democratic values.

Therefore, Phnom Penh might believe that a provisional alignment, rather than fully bandwagoning, with China is the best short-term strategic option given its security and development objectives. However, it is clear that Cambodia-China bilateral ties are asymmetric and the smaller side – Cambodia – will, to a certain extent, experience strategic risks and vulnerabilities. It might have to compromise its sovereignty and foreign policy autonomy to please China.

As a result, Cambodia must develop strategies for the medium and long terms. In the medium run, Cambodia must be a proactive member of ASEAN and play a role in promoting that organization’s centrality in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Cambodia must create a favorable environment to consolidate its relations with other major powers in Asia and beyond.

In the long run, Cambodia must adopt a self-reliant and omnidirectional foreign policy. As a small state, Cambodia must seek a large number of friends in the region while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign, independent, and prosperous nation. Cambodia must promote a rules-based regional order so that all states, regardless of their size, approach international affairs with similar assumptions. It is key for Phnom Penh to ensure the equality and survival of small countries.

It is crucially important to emphasize that while there are different reasons Cambodia cannot execute all its strategic choices at the same time in the short run, the realization of the first option by no means affects the chance to implement the two other options.

Ultimately, Cambodia’s provisional alignment with China will depend on the foreign policy behaviors of Thailand and Vietnam toward Cambodia, ASEAN’s relevance in meeting the security need of its members, its capability to withstand perceived threats from neighboring countries, and the availability of sufficient support from the international community to ensure the small kingdom’s survival, sovereignty, and pursuit of prosperity.

The author is a PhD student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University; and a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS). 


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