Cambodian political analysts have said that no matter what direction US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy goes, the Kingdom must look after its own interests while it stands between superpowers, the US and China. Furthermore, the country’s politicians should not dwell excessively on foreign criticisms.

Analysts expressed their views on what the world can expect from the new US president during a roundtable discussion organised by the Royal Academy of Cambodia on February 8.

Social analyst Meas Nee said Cambodia may hold fast to its positions only when it has the capacity to face and work with the superpowers. Leaders must not be led to attack one superpower by representatives of the other. Cambodia should look to examine issues and solve them cooperatively.

“In the past, we lost our land until it became what we have today. If we follow our old historical norms, our small country will encounter further dangers,” Nee said.

Puy Kea, a news agency correspondent, said the US and EU see Cambodia as leaning towards China. He said Cambodia had made attempts to build closer ties with the US, but their side had not reciprocated.

Geological expert Jean-Francois Tain said Cambodia is currently returning to a policy of neutrality as it did during the period from 1953 to 1970. He described Cambodia as having fallen under the influence of the US from 1970 to 1975 and the influence of China from 1975 to 1979, followed by that of the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. Neutrality, he stressed, is only a theory.

“Cambodia must see where its national interests are. I don’t agree that we should push China away. If not for China, Cambodia would still use ox-driven carts for transportation. China was the first country to invest in Cambodia and the first to provide development assistance grants. China lends the most to Cambodia and helps build infrastructure. Why should we push China away?” he said.

“Developing a nation is one thing, and maintaining a policy of neutrality is another. If we open our arms to Western countries like the US and EU, but they don’t return the gesture, what can we do? We tell them that our foreign policy is neutral, and we desperately need development. We cannot stand to see neighbouring countries developing [while we fall behind].”

To improve Cambodia’s neutrality, Tain said the country must strengthen its economy and local politics. If Cambodia is not independent, its neutral foreign policy will not work.

“I pray that the US and Western countries come to invest in Cambodia. Then they would not talk about democracy here because their companies would be here, too,” he said.

Pen Bona, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and editor-in-chief for the television station PNN, said Cambodia should prioritise its own development. Cambodians of all political leanings should not favour China or the US, but should instead look at the directions in which those countries are moving and capitalise on opportunities brought by aligning interests. This would also help the Kingdom avoid unforeseeable risks, he opined.

“Politicians should overlook some issues that appear to interfere with the sovereignty or internal interests of the nation. Of course, one must stand up to opponents, but we needn’t overreact with regard to national interests.

“I appeal to the public on all sides of the political spectrum – we need to push development forward to avoid making our next generation suffer. We must push our country forward, not backward,” Bona said.