During the Soviet period the USSR cooperated actively with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), supporting them in their struggles for independence and in their opposition to the policies of Western countries. Following the fall of the USSR and the end of the ‘Cold War’, the level of cooperation between the USSR (and its successors) and the ASEAN group declined significantly. However, in the last few years the Russian leadership has taken a number of important measures to restore the country’s former relationship with the ASEAN group. As in the past, these measures relate to economic cooperation, and to a joining of forces to resist Western countries’ attempts to dictate terms to the ASEAN countries. One example of an ASEAN country that Russia is developing successful relationships with, is Cambodia.
The kingdom of Cambodia is on the southern side of the Indo-China peninsula and is one of the least economically-developed countries in the region. Nevertheless Cambodia has voting rights in ASEAN, which makes it an attractive partner for countries wishing to obtain influence in the ASEAN group. The West is trying to develop cooperation with Phnom Penh, but since the USA’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole is declining, while China’s power is increasing, Cambodia is, increasingly, choosing to work with the latter. China is clearly taking active steps to strengthen its positions in Cambodia, and is developing trade links with it and investing large sums in its economy.
However, Russia is also paying considerable attention to Cambodia and is widening its economic, as well as its political relations with this country. It should be pointed out that the USSR also actively cooperated with Cambodia and provided it with a significant amount of aid. One important issue in the current relations between Cambodia and Russia is the talks between the two countries on writing off, or at least reducing, Cambodia’s $1.5 billion debt. Considering the friendly relations between the two countries, there are grounds for hoping that this debt will be written off.
One sign of the high level that the political relationship between Moscow and Phnom Penh has reached is Russia’s appointment as the main foreign observer of the upcoming Cambodian national elections, which will take place in July 2018. By taking on this role Russia has provided an important service to the Cambodian government, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The fact is, that in September 2017 Kem Sokha, the leader of the main Cambodian opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested. He was charged with treason. In October 2017, the government filed a lawsuit to dissolve the CNRP, on the ground of involvement in anti-state activities. In November 2017, this party announced that it has dissolved itself voluntarily, even though earlier it had planned to run in the 2018 elections. The USA, the EU, and a number of other countries immediately accused the Cambodian government of persecuting the country’s main opposition party, and claimed that this conduct automatically invalidated the upcoming elections. They also called for sanctions against Cambodia. It is hard to predict how far matters would have gone had Russia not stepped in.
According to media reports, the agreement to allow Russian observers to monitor the Cambodian elections was concluded by the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, in person. This agreement was reached in his meeting with Hun Sen during the ASEAN summit which took place in November 2017 in Manila, capital of the Philippines. At that time Dmitry Medvedev pointed out that there was a rich and long history of relations between Cambodia and Russia, dating back to 1956, when diplomatic relations between the two countries were officially established. The Russian Prime Minister also announced that the two countries were continuing to communicate in depth at the highest level, as demonstrated by his frequent meetings with Hun Sen between 2014 and 2016. According to Dmitry Medvedev, the closeness of the relations between Russia and Cambodia is demonstrated by a number of different areas of economic cooperation, including the volume of trade between the two countries, and by Cambodia’s popularity as a destination for Russian tourists.
From the tone of the Russian Prime Minister’s speech concerning relations between Russia and Cambodia, it appears likely that the Russian observers’ assessment of the Cambodian elections will be positive, even if the OSCE observers have a different opinion. According to political analysts, the ruling National Party of Cambodia, led by Hun Sen, is likely to the winner in the elections.
Cooperation with powerful international players such as Russia and China may be of great value to Cambodia if Western influence in its territory continues to decline. Despite the fact that the USA remains its main trading partner, Cambodia is continuing to develop relations with its Eurasian partners and cooperate with them, including in areas such as arms sales.
In November 2017, two vessels from Russia’s Pacific Fleet, the ‘Admiral Panteleev’ and the ‘Boris Butoma’ docked in the Cambodian port of Kampongaon. They were on an informal visit as part of a tour of the South East Asian and East Asian seas, carried out with a view to strengthening cooperation with China’s and the ASEAN countries’ naval forces. During their time in Cambodia, the Russian sailors participated in a series of joint exercises together with the Cambodian Navy. According to media reports, Moscow and Phnom Penh are currently discussing the possibility of Cambodia granting the Russian Navy the right to use its ports on a permanent basis. It is worth reminding readers that in 2017 Cambodia withdrew from joint exercises with the USA.
Other areas that Russia and Cambodia are cooperating on include nuclear energy. Cambodia intends to develop this sector, and is relying on Russian assistance to build its first nuclear power station. In 2015, the Cambodian government and Rosatom, the Russian state corporation for nuclear technology, signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation relating to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Since then, there have not been any significant developments in collaboration between Russia and Cambodia on nuclear issues. However, given the increasing level of cooperation between the two countries, and Russia’s role as an observer of the Cambodian elections, there are hopes that all of the two countries’ joint projects will soon be on the way to completion.
In view of the above, we can conclude that Cambodia is getting closer and closer to Russia, and further away from the USA and the EU. Since Cambodia is a full member of the ASEAN group, cooperation with it may increase Russia’s influence in all the members states of that highly important South-East Asian organization.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”