The Prime Minister (PM) of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Hun Sen, undertook an official visit to Maldives from January 15 to 17, 2023. This is the first visit of Cambodian PM to Maldives. Both countries established diplomatic relations on September 21, 1995. Since then, they have worked towards enhancing cultural and economic relations.
The visit assumes significance against the backdrop of Maldives’ pro-active foreign policy in recent years, particularly at the multilateral level, and Cambodia’s role in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) particularly as its Chair in 2022. This aspect has been highlighted during the visit, and both countries have agreed to cooperate on matters of common interest at the regional and international levels. Maldives extended its support to Cambodia’s bid to become an Observer State of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Cambodia is attempting to become an Observer State with the OIC to enhance human resource training and explore new economic opportunities, such as increasing exports to OIC member states and providing more jobs to migrant workers. Maldives is also expecting Cambodia’s support to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in South East Asia. By being part of the Treaty, Maldives is hoping to “strengthen existing economic and multilateral ties with ASEAN countries and open up new avenues of trade and cooperation”. The Parliament of Maldives has approved the proposal by the President to join the TAC in April 2021.
The Cambodian PM’s first visit to Maldives is hailed as a historic milestone in relations and ‘a catalyst for enhancing bilateral cooperation in practical areas, including trade, investment, tourism, cultural exchange, and technical cooperation’. In this regard, both countries have exchanged six key agreements during the visit to further enhance the bilateral relationship. These include the Agreement on Visa Exemption, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Bilateral Consultations, Health Cooperation, Tourism Cooperation, MoU between the Chamber of Commerce of both Maldives and Cambodia, and the Agreement on Economic Cooperation. South East Asia’s share in tourist arrivals to Maldives is still to pick up and it is hoping to attract tourists from the region in the future. In 2021, nearly 7,942 tourists arrived from South East Asia, and the number increased to 45,436 in 2022 (January-November 2022). At present, India, Russia, the United Kingdom (UK), and Italy are the top markets in terms of tourist arrivals to Maldives.
In terms of bilateral trade, which is currently minimal, both countries acknowledge that there is scope for improvement. In 2021, Maldives main exports to Cambodia were fishes, crustaceans, molluscs, and aquatic invertebrates. Whereas Cambodia’s export items to Maldives were footwear, gaiters, and the like. Cambodia is seeking to enhance its trade ties with Maldives, for instance, by exporting its popular rice variety PhkaRumduol jasmine, milled rice, which can address the rice deficiency in Maldives, particularly during the tourist season. This can also help Cambodia find new markets for its agricultural products. At present, China is the largest importer of Cambodian milled rice in 2022, followed by the European Union (EU) and ASEAN countries.
Other areas of cooperation that were touched upon during the visit were human resource development in terms of exchanges in the hospitality industry and education, direct air connectivity to enhance people-to-people relations, and technical cooperation. Both countries have also acknowledged the importance of regular high-level visits, and in this regard, they have decided to initiate a meeting of Bilateral Consultations between Foreign Ministries of the two countries.
The visit is important in many respects. At the domestic level, both countries are looking towards enhancing and improving domestic growth in post-pandemic years. According to the World Bank, both nations are vulnerable to rising inflation, slow global economic growth, and rising global commodity prices.Cambodia is aiming to graduate from the status of Least Developed Country (LDC) and making every effort possible in this direction. In 2021, it has fulfilled two criteria’s (out of three), necessary to move out of LDC status. One is the Gross National Income per capita, which stood at $1,377 (above the $1,222 threshold), and the Human Assets Index stood at 74.3, which was higher than the graduation requirement of 66. However, the country’s Economic and Environmental Vulnerability Index still needs to improve from 30.6 to meet the requirement of at least 32. The country’s leadership is optimistic about fulfilling all three criteria by 2024. Maldives is also looking for avenues of cooperation beyond South Asia to increase its exports and diversify its economic opportunities. Enhanced bilateral cooperation with Cambodia may pave the way for more engagement with the South East Asia region in terms of trade and tourism. Both countries are also keen to advance their security and economic interests amidst the sharpening geopolitics in the Indo-pacific in the region. The US-China competition in the region, the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact on regional security, and on the global supply chain are the main concerns. Cambodia is trying to manage the crisis in Myanmar through ASEAN and has also voted for Ukraine at the UN. Maldives, on the other hand, is trying to maintain a balance in its relations with major powers in the region through active diplomacy. It has taken a similar stand on Ukraine at the UN as Cambodia and voted for Ukraine.
Maldives and Cambodia are small countries in their respective regions, that is, South Asia and South East Asia with similar economic and security needs and are extremely vulnerable to external economic and security shocks. This has also been accompanied over the years by turbulent internal politics. The visit is also a reminder that small nations are looking towards various avenues of cooperation that can go beyond their dependency on major regional powers for their overall economic and security needs and build solidarity with each other. In this context, the visit assumes importance.
*Dr Samatha Mallempati is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
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