Development, Trade and Foreign Affairs

Constructing Cambodian Foreign Strategies

Bandung, Indonesia,
Feb 24, 2016
By Khov Ea Hai

The research develops Cambodia’s interests for checking the impact of a particular international issue whether it has implication to Cambodia or not. For Cambodia, in order to make the identification on the challenges and opportunities possible, we firstly need to define the national interests.

Putting into other words, setting foreign policy to seize opportunities or determining its challenges without knowing the national interests, it would be non-objective, waste of resources, and leading to nowhere. The formulation with regard to the national interests of respective state can be similar, but different countries definitely have different national interests since they have unique geographical constraints, different types of government system and ideologies, and limited resources and capacity. In order to ensure the national interests, the identification of the national interests should be evolved, reexamined, and readjusted from time to time depending on its both domestic and geopolitical context and environment. It deliberately also needs to undertake continuously. In this sense, the questions should be asked are, how can we define the national interests of Cambodia? Given the current situations, what are the major components that make up Cambodian national interests?

Conceptual Framework

The study consults with several strategists’ achievements that have done on the establishment of the grand strategies or the foreign strategies. It takes three snapshots for reviewing the strategic development on the national interests of Robert J. Art, Terry L. Deibel, and Henry R. Nau.

Basically, Robert J. Art, in his book, which entitled “A Grand Strategy for America,”[1] has positioned himself to determine the American national interests, and he argues that is the direction for state spending the given resources to make it success. Moreover, he also ranks those national interests in accordance with its importance to United States of America. In this light, he determines six different national interests for America, which the first national interest is vital, the second and third are highly important, and the rest of them are important, as following:

  • First, prevent an attack on the American homeland;
  • Second, prevent great-power Eurasian wars and, if possible, the intense security competitions that make them more likely;
  • Third, preserve access to a reasonably priced and secure supply of oil;
  • Fourth, preserve an open international economic order;
  • Fifth, foster the spread of democracy and respect for human rights abroad, and prevent genocide or mass murder in civil wars;
  • Sixth, protect the global environment, especially from the adverse affects of global warming and severe climate change.[2]

Terry L. Deibel argues in different ways. He claims that any state must fall naturally into four different categorizes of the national interests[3],  including (1) Physical security, (2) Economic Prosperity, (3) Value preservation at home, and (4) Value projection overseas. According to the Henry R. Nau, the American national interests have something to do with the security protection and prosperity promotion at home. America has interests to protect its borders, to protect sea-lanes of communication and transportation, to ensure the access to the vital raw material and market, and to prevent the dominance of “Western Hemisphere.” The national interest possibly reflects through the measuring a nation in material terms, numbers of armies, weapons, missiles, gross national output, population, and so on.[4]
The possibilities of developing Cambodian national interests in general by identifying on three important concepts: (1) what state did not maintain or protect, it provides disadvantages to state is the national interest, (2) what state can promote, it produces advantages to state is also considered as the national interest, (3) based on the argument of Harvard Political Scientist Stanley Hoffmann, “the national interest is not a self-evident guide, it is a construct.”[5]


Based on the above-mentioned arguments, it, thereby, claimed that there are three significant geographical spheres that fundamentally construct Cambodian national interests. First geographical sphere of interests is covered by the land-area of Cambodian territory named as the “Center.” Second geographical sphere of interest puts on the top of the whole geographical area of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) named as the “Home.” Last but not least, more than the selective regions or continents that are potentially associated with both Cambodia and Southeast Asia, the third geographical sphere of interest is emphasized on the entire world named as the “Gate.” And, these three significant spheres of interests are inter-influence and inter-enforced one another.

The reason of label these three geographical areas, as “Center,” “Home,” and “Gate,” because it helps to tag the various ranks of Cambodian national interests into a better understand of its fundamental importance. Given a state has its limited capacity, resources, and lot of constraints both materials and non-materials to tackle with enormous challenges, then we need to rank these interests into different sorts of importance because they often have conflict with one another.[6] For instance, in case that there is a conflict of interests between the Home and the Center which demanding state to choose, state would tend to decide upon their national interest where it locates in the Center based on its significance for some reasons. Similarly, it would be also the same thing if conflict of interests appears to happen between the Home and the Gate. State would decide to select the Home rather than the Gate. In this connection, we assume that the Center is the most important national interest of Cambodia, while at the same time, the Home is highly important and the Gate is important.

Robert J. Art, Terry L. Deibel, and Henry R. Nau dictate that the national interests of a particular state has correlation with the survival of state (security and protection), prosperity of state (economic well-being), and simply other positions abroad (e.g.Western Hemisphere and value promotion).

Taking the spirit of these formulation and putting the rational actor model which comprising of four parameters, this study construct respective sphere of national interests based on four different features within respective geographical sphere of interests, including economic interest, strategic interest (security), diplomatic interest, and prestige interest.

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With regard to these four features within each sphere, it has also a ranking into top-down significant order to the interests as well. On this logic, the Strategic interest is the first priority; Economic is the second; Diplomatic is the third; and Prestige is the last. But how do we simply identify these significant orders? In order to make an illustration on this, we could simply consider on the negative aspects by making a calculation on the degree of their significance.

1. Strategic Rational Interest

The strategic rationale of Cambodian foreign policy emphasizes the national setting, including security, independence, sovereignty, and also the critical and non-critical dimensions of decision makers. There are numbers of scholars, analysts and practitioners that have used this term in their studies on foreign policy and international relations. Graham T. Allison in 1971, Han J. Morgenthau in 1985, Henry Kissinger in 1994, and Kao Kim Hourn in 2002, they also use the strategic rationale as one of their parameters to make their calculation on foreign policy studies as well. Although Michael Hass takes “security” instead of “strategic,” but likewise it still falls into the same aspect of strategic interests. More essentially, Michael Nicholson also applies the term “strategy” or “strategic studies” in the way that it comprises of security, violence, and military systematically.[7]

Strategic interest is the most and primary priority because it is related to the security and survival of the state, including government, citizens, and territory. While at the same time, the economic and diplomatic sanctions including the attempts to degrade the prestige of a particular country would not totally destroy and dismiss government, citizens, and territory of that country immediately. To take the case in point, given the facts that based on the international mobilized efforts of numerous countries to put economic and diplomatic sanctions, even attempt to use human right protection to overthrow young leader, Kim Jorng-un, through United Nations framework (Economic-Diplomatic-Prestige Approach)[8],  North Korea’s nuclear proliferation still remains existing and continues to threat the regional and international peace, security, and stability nowadays. In this sense, it has demonstrated the different significant extent of Economic, Diplomatic, and Prestige, comparing with Strategic interest.

Indeed, Cambodia is geographically located in between the two sub-regional powers, Vietnam and Thailand to be specific, surrounding from both east and west. Taking a quick consideration on the comparison of these two countries with Cambodia in terms of population sizes (Thailand: 67.01 million, Vietnam: 89.71 million, and Cambodia: 15.14 million) and GDP (Thailand: $387.3 billion, Vietnam: $171.4 billion, and Cambodia: $15.25 billion), it is simply assumed that Cambodia is strategically much less competitive with regard to the resources for the development of its military capacity. The number of population and the size of GDP could mathematically project the military power as they simply constitute the number of soldiers and industrial outputs for the security purposes, even the information technology development.Since the strategic interest at the central point cannot immediately generate greater power to balance with Vietnam and Thailand in the short and medium terms, the best alternative to strengthen the strategic interests in the center is to instantly engage with the regional grouping, namely Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Home Sphere. Although it is not security community nor treaty obligation, unlike NATO for example, and there are many tasks need to further achieve and readjust within these regional frameworks, the strategic factors has provided the regional optical guarantee and potential sources to ensure the national peace, security, and stability of Cambodia.

Being member of ASEAN does not mean Cambodia is fully in peace and secure, but it means the challenges and concerns in terms of security matter are cut down to its minimum. As given a fact that even both countries, Cambodia and Thailand, are members of ASEAN, but they physically had a military border clash with in 2008 over the Preach Vihear temple areas. The dispute is ultimately resolved by the ICJ interpretation. Nevertheless, under the ASEAN framework, Cambodian has enjoyed the potential strategic benefits from the principle of sovereign equality and principle of non-interference in the country members’ internal affairs. To some degree, ASEAN also expands its umbrella to provide means for Cambodia to possibly make use of its strategic interest from this regional driving force, but it would be effective if Cambodia could encourage and strengthen ASEAN to highly value on the actual works rather than the achievements reflecting through papers. Although it is less important than the Center’s strategic interest, but ASEAN in the Home’s strategic interest remains the ongoing cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. This is because strategically ASEAN has played its significant roles and also provided other regional security consultations and conferences, namely ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), participated by not only ASEAN Member States but also regional powers and global powers. And the benefits of strengthening ASEAN centrality are much more beyond the strategic interests for Cambodia.

2. Economic Rational Interest

It is explained by Hans J. Morenthau that “the concept of interests defined in terms of power” which demands economic and military power to ensure their national survival.[9]  The economic rationale of Cambodia foreign policy here emphasizes from domestic aspect outward with a range of foreign direct investment, national debt, economic cooperation, and foreign aid (Kao Kim Hourn, 2002). He substitutes Hass’ “prosperity by using “economic” instead. In addition, the economic rationale has been used widely, for instance, Michael Mastanduno argues that powerful states with strong economies likely to use many economic instruments as a key foreign policy measure against others.  Also, many scholars agree that economic instruments are imperative in the studies of foreign policy decision-making, so it is important and integral to take into account in this sense.

Likewise, to examine on the degree of its significance by the negative aspect, among these three rationales- Economic, Diplomatic, and Prestige- the Economic rationale potentially stands on the second rank of the significant order to the Center of the national interests. Given the North Korea case again, the embargo on North Korea has been destabilizing the macro-economy of the country for years as the consequences its population has faced with hunger and starvation. North Korea normally makes requests to China for food-supply assistance and other humanitarian aid program. Once the North Korea embassy in London revealed to the Foreign Office that, “Any decision we make will be based on assessments currently being made of the country’s food needs.”[10]  In this light, there are a series of analysis and prediction among international relations experts with regard to the collapse of the regime because of this matter.

The centre’s economic interest of Cambodia has always had implications with the home and gate spheres. Basically, Cambodia is the last and youngest member of ASEAN since it has admitted itself into the ASEAN regional grouping in 1999. And it continues to integrate into the wider world through the WTO in 2004. After the admitting into the ASEAN, its economic performance has done a good job. “At almost 10 percent per year between 1998 and 2008, Cambodia’s GDP growth was very strong. The episode of sustained growth was interrupted in 2008-09, but is recovering strongly in 2010-11 with GDP growth estimated at 6.7 percent.” The rapid growth in terms of economic success has been translated into the employment opportunities and the poverty reduction. The poverty headcount has significantly declined from 40-50 percent in 1993-94 to 30 percent in 2007. And it still continues to fall to 17.7 percent in 2012 in terms of poverty headcount. The poverty is essentially concentrated in rural areas. “Cambodia’s real growth rate is expected to moderate to 6.9 percent in 2015 and 2016, as it confronts stronger competition in garment exports, continued weak agriculture sector growth, and softer growth in the tourism sector.”

The government recently puts in place a new vison for its economic development so-called “Industrial Development Policy,” aiming to construct an industrial foundation for boosting the economic growth in long term perspective and at the same time moving to join the Lower Middle Income Countries. In the context of this regionalisation and globalisation, Cambodia is now at a very critical juncture to transform its economic structure from labor-intensive based to a more knowledge based economy by catching up the regional and global supply chain. Cambodia has been a good student performing its obligations under ASEAN and ASEAN plus Framework. And, it have carried out its ambitions in engaging with the talk-shop to build up the mega regional free trade agreement for Asia-Pacific region such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). From this logic, Cambodia’s foreign policy would be definitely in line with the regional and global economic architectures for common prosperity and mutual interests. Its positions thereby would lay down on the ideals of promoting greater facilitation for trade and investment, competitiveness, transparency, and trade related mechanisms. Nevertheless, in order to capture the benefits of integration to its maximum, it should also take into account the need of ongoing reform domestically through enhancing human resources in field of trade and trade related, digitalising unnecessary and complicated administrative procedures, and adopting new regulations and laws which are trade and investment friendly.

Diplomatic Rational Interest

With regard to the diplomatic rationale of Cambodian foreign policy, it highlights on the capacities or feasibility of state utilizing its diplomatic means to voice bilaterally and multilaterally. This approach is also widely applied by various scholars. Dr Kao points out that there is a need for Cambodia to underscore the “diplomatic approach” or “diplomatic feasibility” after isolating from the region and the world for many years.[11]  In the same way, Brian White asserts diplomatic means as the tools of state policy by claiming that “diplomacy is a set of instruments through which decisions are implemented and policy objectives achieved.” [12] Similarly, having demonstrated by Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, diplomatic approach is significantly used in the Australia’s foreign relations to deal with a wide range of international issues as it regards diplomats as policy instruments to manage its foreign affairs.[13]

Meanwhile, with regard the degree of its significance by looking at the negative part, the diplomatic sanction is simply a removal diplomatic tie with a particular state by withdrawing or expelling diplomats and staffs from their diplomatic missions or by simply cancelling the state visit. Therefore, the diplomatic sanction is indeed a political appearance with regard to the certain action in order to illustrate their displeasure or disapproval. In nature of diplomatic sanction, it consumes no physical harm, but it is a political pressure to a state because it does not engage with economic restriction or military intervention at all.However, the diplomatic sanction in practice is just a part of catalyst to drive the situation by involving with other rational interests.

Giving the fact in 2003, the Thai actress alleged that Angkor Wat is not belonging to Cambodia, but Thailand. Unfortunately, the situation had gone worse as the demonstrators attacked the Embassy of Thailand. In response, Prime Minister of Thailand, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, initially “expelled the Cambodian Ambassador, closed the border to Cambodians, and sent air force planes and commandos to evacuate hundreds of Thais from Phnom Penh.” Thai Prime Minister even wanted to “send troops to rescue” Thai people in Cambodia due to the target of attacking was not only Thai embassy, but also other Thai commercial buildings as well in Phnom Penh.Basically, the diplomatic factor is served as the channel to deal with the state-to-state affairs, especially during the crisis is happening, to avoid further worsen situation. In case of diplomatic channel were totally cut off, the consequence would produce an unexpected outcome that impacts on the economic and strategic cooperation. In this logic, we have seen that even in a very worst situation, state remain having a low diplomatic profile in terms of diplomatic mission. The same as in this case, a very low diplomat had maintained even the Ambassadors of both countries were expelled or any other diplomatic channel that remains for contact. It is due to the significance of diplomatic factor playing a role in time of crisis by reflecting unpleasant to the counterpart for the sake of showing its response, and playing a role as a remaining back way for facilitating the situation among states after all. In this connection, the diplomatic factor therefore leftovers importance for state to project its foreign policy in managing the situation and the future continuity of economic and strategic purposes.

For Cambodia, the country had been diplomatically cut off from the international community during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. And, it was then embargoed by the world, particularly from the West since the country was occupied by the Vietnamese troop after the collapse of Khmer Rouge. Most of the diplomatic ties with the world now are just renewed after the Paris Peace accord in 1991. Still, it has to wait till its fully admission to ASEAN as a member state in 1999 in order to fully play its diplomatic role in the region. To some extent, there are still lots of available rooms for Cambodia to make use of the importance of utilising its diplomatic approach since it is an integral part of its foreign policy objective to promote the kingdom’s interest at the centre. While at the same time, there are at least 6 points that are legally binding in its constitutional law as the guiding principles of its foreign policy such as: (1) “policy of permanent neutrality,” (2) “non-alignment,” (3) “policy of peaceful co-existence,” (4) “non-interference,” (5) “peaceful settlement and mutual interests,” and (6) “no foreign military based in the territory.” These 6 points become the potential instruments for the kingdom to promote its diplomatic opportunities by making more friends on the international stage, avoiding a part of issue and standing on the moderate point of views toward any regional and international issues.

Prestige Rational Interest

Last but not least, the prestige approach was also used by Hans J. Morgenthau, Michael Hass, and Kao Kim Hourn in their foreign policy studies and international relations. Hans J. Morenthau argues that states do not always or only “pursue national interests and power,” but they also “act on moral or ideological grounds.” Meanwhile, he argues that prestige is an “ultimate objective of a nation’s foreign policy” to determine “success or failure of its foreign policy.”[14]  Meanwhile, Michael Hass lists down three important elements of prestige as foreign policy for any given country, namely “appear altruistic,” “appear peace-loving,” and “gain respect for leadership.”[15]  However, Kao Kim Hourn argued that with regard to these three elements it “may apply to some degree” only. He further explained that in accordance with information receiving from number of Cambodian policymakers “the prestige rationale is a process of confidence and trust building, good image building, and positive psychological transformation.”[16]

Nevertheless, to address on the extent of its significance by negative phase, the Prestige is to some degree similar to the Diplomatic because it is referred to the way that a state sees other state, which is based on the values of morality, legitimacy, and recognition. It also contains no harm, but it still remains importance because the way state sees or frames other state negatively or positively would give some impacts on the state relations or economic cooperation. It therefore remains as the last significant interest of all for Cambodia. Again, for considering the significance of prestige factor, it can be drawn from the case of attacking the Thai Embassy in 2003. Actually, the primary source of this dispute was about the Thai Actress who alleged that Cambodia shall return the control of Angkor Wat to Thai. However, it was significantly also about the way how the situation was framed by the unsourced information during that time. While the demonstrators angered with the Thai actress on ownership of Angkor Wat, the demonstrators were also reportedly that number of Cambodians were killed by poured gasoline in Thailand. It therefore became the most crucial factor to fuel the anger Cambodian demonstrators in attacking the Embassy of Thailand. It, in this light, confirmed that the prestige interest (the way how state/people sees or were framed to see other state/people is also important) would have strong effect due it is closely correlated with other diplomatic, economic and possibly strategic factors.

The kingdom basically heritages two negative legacies which are related to its prestige, genocide and being a less developed country. Being a poor country that is left behind other in the region plus with the black page of its history, it has shaped the mindset of people around the corner of the world on the way they see Cambodia and ultimately created a cognitive bias in the process of decision-making. In the public speech at the graduation ceremony, Prime Minister HUN Sen addressed that he told John Kerry during his state visit in Cambodia, “I was disappointed when they said Cambodia’s closeness to China was the obstacle to realising COC. […] Before Cambodia’s turn, Vietnam and Indonesia were rotating chairs of ASEAN, why could they realise it? After Cambodia’s turn, Brunei, Myanmar and Malaysia -did they do it? […] because Cambodia is poor and small.” However, on the top of this, beside its negative legacies that influences on the prestige, the kingdom also has a vigorous tool for promoting its prestige in order to reshape the existing negative mindset. The richness of its ancient national heritage, the increasing of its participation under the United Nations Peacekeeping mission to Africa, and the ongoing democratisation process that have been significantly rooted over the last two decades are the fundamental grounds for this country to further work on it for greater prestige on the international fora.


To make it easy for calculation, we simply put in place three different sphere of interests. The most important one is the Centre representing of Cambodia itself. The highly important one is the Home representing the regional sphere. And, the important one is the Gate representing the world at large. Thus, for Cambodia’s interest, it has an outward significant order from centre to home and from home to gate.

While the center has its four features, the other two spheres of interests also have their own four rational features as well, and they have interaction with one another across the boundaries. To some reasons, the extent of impacts given by the interactions between the respective four features of each sphere would provide different consequences. This is because the size, strength, and power of respective sphere happen to drive oppositely from the significance of Cambodia’s Interests. In this connection, the impact given by the Gate or the Home to the Center provides a tremendous consequence while the impact given by the Center to the Home or the Gate appears to be minor.

After its independence within these several decades, the foreign policy of Cambodia has made a tremendous change from nonalignment to regional engagement.  Lesson-learnt from the past demands Cambodia to have insightful rational foreign policy with long-term thought, be pragmatic, and be self-reliant. The construction on the Cambodia’s Interests based on the three spheres with its four different rational terms- Strategic, Economic, Diplomatic, and Prestige- helps to provide guidelines for projecting its foreign policy. Since the kingdom inevitably has certain resources, limited capacity, and numerous constraints in response to the massive issues occurring on different dimensions, the establishment of three spheres of national interests, consisting of four distinctive rationales and its significance, is therefore indispensably a cornerstone for calculating its foreign policy options and for explaining the rational behaviors of the state in reaction to the issues.

[1] Robert J. Art, “A Grand Strategy for America,” A Century Foundation Book, Cornell University Press, London, 2003
[2] ibid,
[3] Terry L. Deibel, “Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft,” Cambridge University Press, United States, 2007, pp 125.
[4] Henry R. Nau, “At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy,” A Century Foundation Book, United States, Cornell University Press, 2002.
[5] Extracted from Terry L.Deibel, “Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft,” Cambridge University Press, United States, 2007, pp 125.
[6] Robert J. Art, “A Grand Strategy for America,” A Century Foundation Book, Cornell University Press, London, 2003, pp 45.
[7] Michael Nicholson, “International Relations: a concise introduction,” Second Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002, pp 128-152.
[8] UNSC Resolution 825 (May 11, 1993) calling North Korea to reconsider withdrawing from Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapon. Resolution 1540 (April 28, 2004) urges states to take additional effective measures. Resolution 1695 (July 15, 2006) calling for a diplomatic solution and bans all member states from transactions with North Korea involving material, technology or financial resources transfer. Resolution 1718 (Oct 14, 2006), in reaction of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, the resolution establishes an embargo on military and technological materials, as well as luxury goods, and freezing North Korea’s certain financial assets.
[9] Extracted from Henry R. Nau, “At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy,” A Century Foundation Book, United States, Cornell University Press, 2002.
[10] Kim Sengupta, “North Korea Sends SOS to World to Feed its Starving People,” Global Policy Forum, Published on Feb 11, 2011.
[11] Kao Kim Hourn, “Cambodia’s Foreign Policy and ASEAN: From Nonalignment to Engagement,” Doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Hawaii, published by CICP, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2002.
[12] Brian White, “Diplomacy,” in John Baylis and Steve Smith, “The Globalisation of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations,” Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, pp 249-262
[13] Gareth Evans and Bruce Grant, “Australia’s Foreign Relations: in the World of the 1990s,” Second Edition, Melbourne University Press, Victoria, 1995, pp 63-66.
[14] Hans J. Morgenthau, “Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, rev. Kenneth W. Thompson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985)” pp 94-95.
[15]  Michael Hass, “Cambodia, Pol Pot and the United States: The Faustian Pact,” (New York: Praeger, 1991) , pp 131-132.
[16] Kao Kim Hourn, “Cambodia’s Foreign Policy and ASEAN: From Nonalignment to Engagement,” Doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Hawaii, published by CICP, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2002, pp 71.




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This entry was posted on April 1, 2016 by in International Relations and tagged .






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