Why 'permanent neutrality' doesn't work in Cambodia

Cambodian strongman and Prime Minister Hun Sen. While Cambodia still claims to adhere to the policy of 'permanent neutrality and non-alignment', its actions speak louder than words. (File photo)

The end of the Cold War marked a turning point in international politics -- the collapse of socialism and the planned economy and the rise of democracy and a free market economy. Ideological conflict became a thing of the past. The absence of the East-West confrontation, however, did not necessarily constitute the absence of a power struggle.

The Cold War ended only to kick off a new round of competition for sphere of influence. The United States and China emerged as both partners and rivals shaking the world. Amid the rise of strategic, economic and security uncertainty, a small state like Cambodia became more vulnerable to being trapped in a power struggle amid these great powers. Cambodia claims a neutral diplomatic position, but history and geopolitics have proven that such a policy is impractical.

First, Cambodia's neutrality is a history of failed policy. Five years after the country gained independence from France in November 1953, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, then the head of state, wrote an article titled, "Cambodia Neutral: The Dictate of Necessity", which was published in Foreign Affairs. To King Sihanouk, taking no side was the best diplomatic position to prevent Cambodia from being entangled in the Cold War. Unfortunately, Cambodia learned the policy of neutrality the hard way. It was not interested in the Cold War, but the Cold War was interested in Cambodia. In the decades of proxy wars and political instabilities that followed, millions died.

Second, Cambodia's neutrality does not work due to its geopolitics. Cambodia is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, two bigger countries with historical records of territorial invasions and wars against Cambodia. The territorial conflict over Preah Vihear temple between Cambodia and Thailand in 2011, for instance, vindicates Cambodia, but it remains vulnerable to security threats posed by its neighbours. However, Cambodia cannot do much to protect its national security and sovereignty, given its small economy and poorly trained and equipped military. Depending on diplomatic and security assurances from great powers seems to be a strategy of choice for Cambodia. But Cambodia has to pay the price. The diplomatic and security assurance come with conditions that has shaped its foreign policy. Cambodia's neutrality therefore is questionable.

After the Cold War ended, Cambodia has gradually become a centre point of power competition in Southeast Asia between the US and China. While it still claims to adhere to the policy of "permanent neutrality and non-alignment", its actions speak louder than words. Cambodia-China relations, particularly their military-to-military relations, are intensifying, while Cambodia's relations with the US and other Western countries are in decline. Cambodia has blocked Asean joint statements on the South China Sea twice, in 2012 and 2016, destroying the grouping's unity and helping China to prevent the dispute from being internationalised. As Cambodia leans toward China, its neutrality seems more like lip service.

Cambodia cannot isolate itself in the international system. Even if it does not want to choose sides, the immense pressure of the international system will force it to choose.

Within this context, Cambodia's neutrality is a curse.

Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Beppu, Japan. He is also a writer for the Bangkok Post.


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