This article is part of the ‘Blue Security’ project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute, UNSW Canberra and the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D). Views expressed are solely of its author/s and not representative of the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government, or any collaboration partner country government.

What are the maritime governance priorities for Cambodia?

While land borders have historically preoccupied Cambodia’s defense priorities, maritime governance has also been a cornerstone of its national defense strategy. Since the release of its 2002 Defense Strategic Review, Phnom Penh has increasingly emphasized the maritime domain with three priorities: border security, control of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and constabulary duties.

First, Cambodia views maritime border security as key to combatting terrorism and transnational crimes such as human trafficking and illicit smuggling. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States stoked Cambodian concerns about terrorism, and Cambodia has since aimed to prevent terrorists from attacking or using its territory against other nations. The concern was shown to be very real when the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombing, Hambali, took refuge in Cambodia after the attack. Consequently, counter-terrorism was prioritized in Cambodia’s 2000, 2006, and 2022 defense white papers and its 2002 and 2013 defense strategic reviews.

Second, Cambodia seeks to establish and maintain effective control over its EEZ so its resources, such as fisheries and offshore petroleum, can be harnessed for national development. Sustainable marine resource management can generate expanded national revenue and support the development of a Blue Economy. This, in turn, can strengthen Cambodia’s economic growth by expanding maritime connectivity and access to renewable energy. In addition, a robust ability to monitor activities can mitigate the costs associated with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Cambodia’s EEZ.

Third, Cambodia aims to improve its ability to conduct constabulary capabilities such as law enforcement and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations at and via sea. The country needs greater practical experience in maritime governance to respond to emergencies such as piracy, natural disasters and maritime incidents.

What does Cambodia see as the most critical maritime security challenge?

Traditional security threats, such as the tensions spurred from incomplete maritime border demarcation with Vietnam and Thailand and the South China Sea maritime disputes, are seen as the most critical long-term challenges for its regional relations, which could become strained and spark a  conflict.

Cambodia’s ambiguous maritime borders with Thailand and Vietnam have been a source of lurking tension. Although bilateral relations with these countries have been peaceful over the past decade, Cambodia remains geographically wedged between two bigger neighbours. Given the historical legacies, the incomplete maritime border demarcation has serious implications for Cambodia’s economy and regional stability. The Royal Cambodian Navy (RCN) is arguably weaker and significantly under-equipped compared to its counterparts next door, and so is an ineffective deterrent.

Although Cambodia and Thailand have been negotiating a joint development area within their 26,000 square kilometers overlapping claim area in the Gulf of Thailand, negotiations were delayed by COVID-19 and have been deprioritized vis-à-vis both nations’ competing domestic priorities. With Vietnam, historical maritime boundary disputes stem from the French colonial administration legacy and have remained a source of nationalistic grievances among certain parts of the Cambodian population. The case of Koh Tral/Phu Quoc Island is particularly concerning. In 2019, a diplomatic spat flared when Cambodia protested Vietnam’s unilateral planting of concrete piles along the contested border off Cambodia’s coast, a move seen by Cambodia as contrary to the bilateral cooperation framework signed by both countries. The strategic divergence between Cambodia and Vietnam concerning their views of China’s actions in the South China Sea adds another layer of complication to their bilateral relationship.

The increasing intensity and frequency of maritime stand-offs in the South China Sea concerns Cambodia for two reasons. First, as a non-claimant state, it wants to see the dispute resolved peacefully through diplomatic means between the claimant states. Second, Cambodia has watched with growing unease the increasing internationalization of the dispute spurred by actors outside of (and sometimes inside) Southeast Asia.

Non-traditional challenges such as terrorism, transnational crimes, and natural disasters are more immediate threats facing Cambodia. In December 2009, Cambodia established the National Committee for Maritime Security (NCMS) as the national body responsible for coordinating inter-agency policy implementation, fostering legal framework across the Cambodian government, and strengthening international partnerships. In 2012, the country unveiled its first National Strategy for Maritime Security, outlining the NCMS’s key priorities and operational principles. Meanwhile, the NCMS’s Tactical Command Headquarters (TCHQ) is in charge of the actual execution of all maritime operations deemed necessary by the NCMS. However, the NCMS and TCHQ face a myriad of technical, human resource, and policy coordination challenges.

What are the maritime governance strengths of Cambodia?

Involvement in international cooperative frameworks is a centerpiece of Cambodia’s maritime governance as this helps address and mitigate significant gaps in domestic capabilities, such as the lack of qualified human resources, inadequate naval infrastructure and vessels, and institutional limitations of the RCN and NCMS. As an ASEAN member, Cambodia engages in various regional mechanisms, including the ADMM-Plus Expert Working Group on Maritime Security and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Also, Cambodia remains part of the U.S.-sponsored Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative (SEAMLEI) despite current U.S. sanctions against the Commander of the RCN. Internationally, it is a member of the International Maritime Organization.

What are the most significant maritime governance capacity gaps in Cambodia?

Cambodia faces three primary maritime governance capacity gaps. First, there is a lack of highly qualified Cambodian experts trained in global maritime affairs. In the public sector, Cambodia’s engagements in global deliberations on maritime issues remain relatively constrained by the limited training foreign service officers have in maritime security. Addressing this lack of training is necessary for Cambodia to engage meaningfully with the global discourses on maritime issues. The under-representation of Cambodian perspectives has left the country’s strategic narratives mostly missing from the global maritime discourse. For example, the debate on the re-development of the Ream Naval Base is dominated by Western media and analysts who view Cambodia predominantly through the lens of U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia and who lack the background in Cambodia’s history and strategic thinking.

The second gap is the institutional limitations and personnel gaps of the RCN and the NCMS, the two national agencies most responsible for maritime governance. While inter-agency coordination for maritime issues remains a challenge across the government, force development and professionalization and a more robust hardware acquisition need to be addressed.

Finally, Cambodia lacks the hard naval infrastructure needed to address the RCN’s strategic and logistical challenges. These challenges adversely affect its ability to patrol and therefore govern Cambodian waters, conduct joint exercises with foreign partners, and enhance its operational capacities. This is why the ongoing re-development of the Ream Naval Base is strategically vital for Cambodia’s maritime governance.

Re-developing Ream serves four key purposes in addressing Cambodia’s maritime governance gaps. First, the water level at Ream had become too shallow to accommodate larger and more capable RCN vessels that may need to be procured in the future to ensure Cambodia has sufficient hardware to safeguard its territorial waters. After the re-development, Ream will be able to welcome ships from foreign partners such as the United States and Japan looking to conduct port calls, goodwill missions, joint exercises, or replenishment in a way that it currently cannot. Second, Ream’s existing maintenance capability limitations require Cambodia to send its vessels to neighbouring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia for costly and time-consuming upkeep. Having an adequate shipyard will address this shortfall. Third, the existing condition at Ream hinders the RCN’s shore-to-ship communication and surveillance. Without these expanded command and control capabilities, Cambodia cannot effectively monitor vessels in its EEZ, leaving Cambodia’s maritime governance and domain awareness vulnerable. Fourth, Ream must be re-developed to enhance Cambodia’s ability to conduct HADR and counter-terrorism operations at sea individually or jointly with regional partners.

In Cambodia’s view, Ream’s re-development is overdue and within its constitution and rights as a sovereign state. It is necessary to address the RCN’s long-term strategic and logistical challenges. Viewing the re-development solely through the lens of U.S.-China geopolitical competition overlooks Cambodia’s maritime governance capacity needs and its national defense and economic development priorities as a small state situated between larger neighbours in a strategically contested region. Moreover, Cambodia has leveraged its external ties to address its self-defense and maritime security challenges.

What are priority areas for international cooperation that would improve maritime governance capacity in Cambodia?

There are four key areas where international partners can help bolster Cambodia’s maritime governance capacity.

First, language training and capacity-building programs in global maritime affairs for Cambodian scholars, public officials, and navy personnel could help the country address its existing human resource gap and engage more proactively and effectively in regional discourses.

Second, Cambodia would benefit from support for the institutional capacity-building of the RCN and the NCMS. Assistance to the ongoing re-development of Ream from partners such as Australia, the United States and Japan, in addition to that made by China, would be welcome, and this would enable the country to strike a more delicate strategic balance in international engagement in its defense modernization program.

Third, strategic dialogues through Track 1.5 diplomacy between Cambodian and foreign academics and think tanks will enhance mutual understanding of each other’s maritime governance interests.

Finally, international partners should continue supporting the enhancement of Cambodia’s sea-based HADR, counter-terrorism, and transnational crime prevention to help the country reach the priorities set in its 2022 Defense White Paper.

How can existing regional and minilateral security frameworks contribute to maritime governance in Cambodia?

Cambodia has been relatively quiet as it continues to observe the evolution and purpose of minilateral security groupings such as the Quad. That said, Quad initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) may enhance Cambodia’s ability to govern its maritime area. Furthermore, IPMDA could complement existing ASEAN platforms and push for greater transparency and accountability in the maritime domain.

About Chansambath Bong

Chansambath Bong is a deputy director at the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), a think-tank based in Cambodia. Concurrently, he is a lecturer at the Institute for International Studies and Public Policy, Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). His current research focuses on Cambodia’s foreign and defence policy and Southeast Asian security. He holds an MA in Security Studies from Kansas State University where was a Fulbright scholar.