Notes from the Field

America’s Role in Asia Released in Cambodia

January 14, 2009

On January 12th, in Phnom Penh, The Asia Foundation and the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace convened a discussion of America’s Role in Asia, newly-released recommendations on what America’s foreign policy should be in Asia when the new U.S. Administration takes office.

The fourth in a series of quadrennial reports that coincide with U.S. presidential elections, this marks the first time America’s Role in Asia (ARA) findings were ever publicly released and discussed in Cambodia. Since ARA’s first publication in 1996, Cambodia’s condition has vastly improved. Today, Cambodia is ready to be more deeply engaged in the affairs of Southeast Asia.  For so many decades, Cambodia only participated in international affairs in a meaningful way when they directly affected Cambodia’s domestic politics. And because of civil war, Cambodia was so weakened financially and intellectually that it couldn’t afford to play more than a modest role internationally.  Its only noteworthy accomplishment was weaving itself into the regional fabric through membership of ASEAN.

In a region of giants, Cambodia will never be a dominant force.  But if the present trajectory is maintained, Cambodia could become a far more consequential actor than it has been since the glory years of the Angkor kingdoms.  By 2025, Cambodia’s fast-growing population will have surpassed 20 million; its economy will have tripled in size; and the government budget will have increased by far greater factors.  Most important, however, a new generation of young Cambodians ” many foreign-educated, ambitious for their country’s development, and reared during peaceful and prosperous times ” will have come of age. They will be keen to stamp the impression of a revitalized Cambodia on regional affairs and to pursue Cambodia’s interests through enhanced bilateral and multilateral engagement.  In short, Cambodia will have the ambition and the resources to pursue a more mature foreign policy.  In a sign of Cambodia’s growing ambitions, the highest levels of government are believed to be committed to the pursuit of a rotating seat on the UN Security Council in 2013.

To me, the release of the ARA findings here in Phnom Penh this year is promising. It may be a tangible signal of this growing interest in looking at international affairs in a more substantive way. Perhaps one can look ahead to a more assured Cambodian foreign policy, better integrated into the regional and international stage.

Roderick Brazier is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at rbrazier@asiafound.org.

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