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Playing games with rockets

The prime minister’s rocket test was intended to prevent war, not provoke it

By Sokchea Lim

Cambodia’s recent testing of rocket launchers has sparked some political responses in both the country and the region. Dr Carlyle Thayer, a professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales, called the launch “a bit of theatre” on Hun Sen’s part. My personal response to him is that that “bit” can bite, in a strategic sense.

Thayer also added that the action would entrench the political influence of the military in society, making it harder for real civilian control to take place.

A similar analysis was made by Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. This was “an opportunity for Hun Sen to militarise or gain support for the military”, he said.

I guess the above comments were made on the basis of Cambodia’s political history and the current state of Cambodia’s politics. However, if we have a deeper look into the issue and from a conflict and resolution perspective, it should give more insights into the strategies played by commander in chief Hun Sen in order to achieve peace.

This is a game played by two players. Each player acts in complex interactive situations by choosing strategies that provide the best outcomes for each side. Game theory has been widely applied to the concept of conflicts and resolutions by studying the incentives that lead to war and the incentives that prevent it. Dr Robert Aumann, a game theorist and Nobel Prize laureate in economics, explained that what prevented the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union from turning hot was not disarmament, but the bombers in the air.

Likewise, actions taken by Cambodia including troop deployment, the establishment of a border committee, military budget increases, rocket testing, etc, are to assert a “threat to punish” or go to war if Thailand chooses to invade. If Thailand chose to invade and Cambodia chose to go to war, the result would be devastating. However, this outcome could not happen due to the reason that it was not in the best interest of Thailand to go to war, and engaging in war would earn Thailand nothing.

The stand of the Cambodian commander in chief, Hun Sen, is clear: Cambodia is committed to positioning itself as a peaceful neighbour and desires no war. As Hun Sen said, “This is a normal drill and preparation to defend the nation in case there is an invasion.”

Therefore, the signal sent by Phnom Penh should not be perceived as “regional instability”, which was noted by Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is an agreement strategically reached by both sides to prevent war. It is not in the best interest of either party to stage war, since war would result in huge losses for both countries. And a threat is necessary for the agreement to be enforceable.

Sokchea Lim is a PhD candidate in economics at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in the United States.



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