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Scholar Outlines Small-But-Smart State Policy

As a small country influenced by superpowers and neighboring countries ideologically, politically, and economically, Cambodia needs to pursue a balance of influence, Phat Kosal, a Cambodian scholar on international relations of the Asia-Pacific, says.

A small state is vulnerable from within and without, he said, as a guest last week on “Hello VOA.” It must also contend with insecurity, an under-diversified economy, over-dependency, high risk of isolation, and openness to external influence, he said.

A small state can’t change that fact, he said, so it must have good strategies to deal with such issues, in what he called a “smart state.”

A smart state is one that has a mixture of strategies that maintain its neutrality and autonomy but prevent it from being a client state of a greater power, he said. It must enmesh with greater powers, but use its strategic position to build special relationships among a number of them, allowing greater flexibility to leverage its own interests.

“A smart state has a diversified economy, increasing freedom of actions and avoiding external coercion,” he said. “It has diplomatic flexibility—deepened good neighborly relations and regional institutions to avoid isolation. And it has a clearly defined national ideology supported by a trusting society. Trust between the government and the governed is a vital source of social capital for a strong buffer against the penetration of external influences.”

Nationalism, too, can be a source of strength, he said, and can be used to advance a national cause.

Responding to a question on Facebook from reader Bora Huon, Phat Kosal said Cambodia has moved forward positively in its foreign relations.

“In addition to Cambodia’s ability to overcome genocide and civil wars, it is in a stage of self development and has been engaged in political, economic, and diplomatic relations with countries in the region and the rest of the world,” he said. “Our international relations are diverse, which should be the strength of Cambodia.”

A 70-year-old listener from Kampong Thom province asked what Cambodia needed to do to become a prosperous country.

Phat Kosal pointed to Cambodia’s size and history, saying it is hard for a small country to be independent. Cambodia has been influenced largely by the French and the Chinese in its modern history, with China’s influence growing today.

However, he said, “we need to have a foreign policy with diverse and flexible strategies in terms of economics, politics and diplomacy, because if the superpower we depend on can no longer provide us with its support, we can be supported by others.”

Phat Kosal said both the US and China are important to Cambodia today, “but we must not accept just anything offered by China without considering the social, cultural, economic impacts and the country’s policy.”

“As a small country, we must be smart in terms of our associations with powerful countries,” he said.

Now that the Cold War is over, superpowers don’t have absolute influence over any one country, he said, but Cambodia still struggles at times to meet conditions imposed by the West, chiefly in democracy, human rights and social justice.

Chinese aid comes with conditions, too, he said. “Their conditions are just different from those of the US and the West. China wants our country’s resources and wants us to be their subordinate.”

All that said, “there is no fixed menu for smartness,” he said. “It rests on the personal judgment, creativity and political art of national leaders to construct the best overall outcome within the context of national constraints and opportunities presented to them,” he said.

That means balancing wider interests with international goals, as well as with short-term and long-term interests, he said.