Russia could emerge as a third superpower as it shakes up the international geopolitical order following its “invasion” of Ukraine in February, though the influence the Kremlin has on Cambodia remains limited, said some local analysts.
Puy Kea, an independent analyst and veteran correspondent for Kyodo News in Cambodia who has followed international developments for decades, said that when it comes to international geopolitics, Russia is third only to the US and China.
He said the pressing issues facing the world previously were the long-standing South China Sea dispute and North Korea’s nuke programme. In the region, contentious issues have emerged recently, including the ongoing Myanmar crisis and the Taiwan Straits, which has been the focus of renewed tensions following the official visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But perhaps the most concerning issue confronting the world today is the prolonged Russia- Ukraine conflict, which has sent shockwaves across the global economy.
“Previously there were only two poles: the US and China. But since Russia’s war in Ukraine started, the issue becomes another sphere in which the superpowers have become involved in conflict, namely the US, China and Russia,” Kea said.
As for geopolitical poles, Kea said that despite Russia acting the part of a third geopolitical pole, it was less influential for Cambodia because the Kingdom has purportedly been closely intertwined with China and stuck in the middle of Sino-US rivalry.
“Overall, we used to have strong relations with Russia in the 1980’s [until the fall of the USSR], and lately the relations have been normal. But economically and politically, Cambodia has looked to and worked more closely with China and the US as compared to Russia,” he said.
Kea said the Sino-US influences now carry the most global weight, while that of Russia remains limited, though it still holds sway in unreformed communist states such as China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba despite Moscow having abandoned the system itself nearly 30 years ago.
Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, opined that the Russian pole is still hidden in shadows in that their influence has yet to become as apparent or be seen as clearly as that of China and the US.
However, Phea said the Kingdom has taken as its sovereign position that it will not blindly follow the paths of China or the US. And although the Cambodian government joined others to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine by co-sponsoring the UN General Assembly resolution against it – whereas China abstained – it did not cut off diplomacy or reduce ties with Russia, let alone advocate for sanctions.
“We obviously saw the votes twice in the UN. The first time, Cambodia voted against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but when others voted to suspend the membership of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, the Kingdom voted in abstention,” he noted.
Cambodia’s position has always been for peaceful negotiations to end the Russia-Ukraine conflict instead of the continued use of military force, because the Kingdom stands behind the principles of the UN Charter rather than allow itself to be excessively influenced by any of the superpowers or fall into some trap between these three geopolitical poles.
“I personally see that Cambodia has always consistently respected the UN Charter and international law and wants to see a peaceful rules-based international order. I have observed that Cambodia has as its position a policy of not indulging the desires of either the US or China too heavily as it risks drawing a negative reaction from the other side,” he said.
Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID), was of the view that the Russia-Ukraine issue has poured gasoline on an already combustible situation characterised by escalated tension between China and the US.
He said Russia may be called the third pole by certain analysts, but it has no direct impact on Cambodia like the rivalry between China and the US.
In strictly economic terms, Russia cannot compete as a superpower. It reportedly has the world’s 11th largest economy with a gross domestic product (GDP) of roughly $1.8 trillion, as opposed to the world’s number two economy, China, at around $20 trillion or the US at $25 trillion.
The world’s number three economy, Japan, has around $5 trillion in GDP – illustrating the large economic advantage over the rest of the globe that forms the basis for the US and China’s superpower status.
“Cambodia is a small country with little to gain by embracing the foreign policies of the superpowers. The Kingdom’s focus is on strengthening the implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, which is the right choice for the Myanmar crisis. The vote in favour of the UN’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a principled stance that raised the profile of Cambodia on the international stage,” Vannak said.
Kea noted that as the world faces new challenges this year, Cambodia successfully held diplomatic meetings of global consequence and interest, namely the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings. Cambodia’s success as hosts during these difficult times earned a great deal of praise from leaders around the world.
Kea said the crisis in Ukraine and others like in Myanmar – or the issue of Taiwan – have placed added burdens on Cambodia as the ASEAN chair this year and complicated its work in that capacity of coordinating and making decisions – especially in issuing joint statements with partner countries, inside and outside of ASEAN, which require total consensus from all sides.
Phea credited the leadership of Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn for having been able to steer the ASEAN bloc through the heated geopolitical rivalries of the superpowers, especially during the hosting of the 55th AMM, where the Kingdom’s diplomats and leaders enabled the ministers from the various countries, especially from each superpower country, to return to the negotiating table until ASEAN released joint statements with each of its partners.