Cambodian PM Hun Sen's Cabinet reshuffle sends a strong signal: The Nation

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaking during a meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaking during a meeting at the National Assembly building in Phnom Penh.PHOTO: AFP

The departure of veteran Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong represents a milestone in the nation's recent political and diplomatic annals. Prime Minister Hun Sen has never reshuffled his Foreign Ministry in this way.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

The Nation/ Asia News Network

While the country's attention has zeroed in on other senior Cabinet member rotations and dismissals, Phnom Penh-based Asean diplomats are watching carefully what could be the ramifications of the latest Hun Sen moves - both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts.

Indeed, such a large number of reshuffled posts normally needs to go through the ruling Cambodia People's Party's deliberations beforehand, but this time the reshuffle did not.

Apparently, the region's longest-serving premier wanted to use this opportunity to gauge internal support as he pushes through candidates. Certainly, eyebrows were raised among top party's echelons.

The new foreign minister appointment, Mr Prak Sokhon, who previously served as post and communications minister, comes at a critical time as Cambodia suffers the consequences of political mishaps in July 2012 and the dismal election of 2013.

When Cambodia held the Asean chairmanship, Mr Hor Namhong refused to issue a joint communique - even though Asean had been through at least 18 drafts concerning the situation in the South China Sea - to soften Asean's stance on the issue.

The minister also insisted on turning down suggestions from his Indonesian and Singaporean colleagues who tried to help, but in vain. Subsequently, Cambodia was harshly criticised by other members and dialogue partners.

More than officials would like to admit, Mr Hun Sen has to take the blame himself, quietly out of respect for the senior minister, who served at one time as his foreign policy mentor.

Make no mistake, by opting for Mr Prak Sokhon, who was his former adviser, Mr Hun Sen wanted to send a strong signal to Asean and the international community that this non-aligned country is back with a fresh foreign policy outlook.

Mr Prak Sokhon currently holds the presidency of the Institute of Research and Analysis Group, a think-tank belonging to Mr Hun Sen. Under his leadership, four policy trends are emerging as far as external relations are concerned.

First, Cambodia's foreign pathway will be more moderate - no more the adventurism of the past or the dramatic turnarounds in bilateral relations. It will adhere to the principles of the non-aligned movement, which King Sihanouk co-founded in the 1950s with other newly independent countries.

Cambodia will adopt a more multi-directional foreign policy that will increase its profile regionally and internationally through non-traditional security cooperation, such as peacekeeping and landmine clearing, among other activities.

Mr Prak Sokhon will follow a clear pattern of diplomacy that will seek friendly relations with all. Unless we forget, it was the UN-backed peace plan in 1991 that made Cambodia the country as we know it today.

Some Cambodian officials have borrowed the term "dynamic equilibrium" - first used by former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa - to describe the country's future diplomatic outlook.

Second, from now on Cambodia will maintain a delicate balance between major powers, especially the first tier partnerships affecting China and Japan and the second tier between China, the US and the EU.

For the past three years, Mr Hun Sen has successfully maintained a stable relationship with China and Japan, especially with the latter after a brief slump in relations in 2012.

Now Cambodia has formed strategic partnership ties with the two Asian giants, although the former is more competitive.

As for relations with the West, Mr Hun Sen has Mr Prak Sokhon's job cut out for him.

He could further strengthen ties with the US and Europe, especially with second-rank investor the United Kingdom. After the Sunnylands summit, Cambodia has also occupied a higher standing in Washington's scheme of things.

Third, Cambodia's integration into the Asean Community economy remains a top priority for Mr Hun Sen.

He wants to make sure that his Asean legacy is kept intact and not blemished by South China Sea conflicts - of which Cambodia is not a party.

Starting with the first time Cambodia held the Asean chair in 2003, Mr Hun Sen has left a strong legacy in Asean, acting as a balance between old and new Asean members.

Although Cambodia was the last to be admitted in 1999, its influence was far larger because it was a more open country.

With a freer economic and political atmosphere, Mr Hun Sen's voice was loud.

Phnom Penh's scorecard of AEC implementation was above average.

Among Asean members, Cambodia is quite liberal in its financial and service sectors. In addition, Mr Prak Sokhon can reconnect with Asean to boost "Asean Centrality", calling for more consultations between Asean colleagues, with whom he would certainly have a better rapport.

At the moment, Cambodia wants to push key Asean agenda items on narrowing the development gap, promoting small and medium-size enterprises, and connectivity.

Finally, Cambodia's relations with neighbouring countries have developed markedly, especially with Thailand and Vietnam.

In the past two years, Thai-Cambodia links have improved greatly since the former's coup in May of 2014. Both sides have embarked on new projects that could improve Thai investment and migrant workers' welfare in Thailand.

Both sides also continue to discuss ways to implement recommendations by the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the Phreah Vihear/Praviharn Temple - without resorting to violence as before. Border cooperation has increased and so has border trade. Hun Sen and his Thai counterparts get along very well.

The new leadership line-ups in Vietnam and Laos also augur well for Cambodia's foreign policy orientation. Squabbling over the construction of dams and protection of the environment has died down. Now all the lowerMekong riparian countries are poised to intensify their cooperation and increase overall engagement with China.