The recently concluded visit of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni helped in boosting Phnom Penh's bilateral ties with New Delhi, while fostering cultural and economic connections between the two countries
Maiden state visit of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni to India from May 29 to 31, this year was significant for more than one reason. First, it took place almost after six decades with the last one being that of his father, King Norodom Sihanouk in 1963; second, it coincided with the culmination of celebrations, marking the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between India and Cambodia. In 1952, diplomatic relations between the two nations were established after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. In fact, India was the first democratic country to recognize the new government in Cambodia and reopened its diplomatic mission in 1981. Today, Cambodia is an important interlocutor in the context of India’s Act East Policy, the ASEAN, and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. It hosted the first India-ASEAN summit in 2002 when it held the chair of ASEAN. In 2022, again during the Cambodian chair of ASEAN, the ASEAN-India relations were elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Trade engagement Bilateral trade between the two countries is around $320 million with Indian exports totaling around $198 million and imports from Cambodia totaling around $122 million. Since 2008, New Delhi has offered Duty Free Tariff Preference scheme to Phnom Penh to offer an accessible market for Cambodian exports. India is placed among the top 10 foreign investors in Cambodia with approximately $115 million worth of investments mainly in mining, autos, and pharmaceuticals. The two states have been contemplating the establishment of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and Cambodia. Cultural engagement In November 2022, the Indian delegation led by Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar and EAM S Jaishankar inked four important MoUs during their three-day visit to Cambodia for the 17th East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit. The first agreement was in the area of medicine and health; second MoU was for capacity building for a tiger-friendly ecosystem followed by the handover of tigers to Cambodia after they went extinct there owing to hunting and habitat destruction; third agreement was signed between IIT Jodhpur and the Institute of Technology, Cambodia to enhance educational collaboration; and last MoU was signed for joint conservation and preservation of Ramayana-based murals in Wat Raja Bo Pagoda. These agreements clearly indicated that the Indo-Cambodian bilateral relations are well-rooted in soft power. Hindu and Buddhist rituals and India mythology have a significant influence on Cambodian society, which is now predominantly Buddhist. This is reflected in the various ceremonies that are reminiscent of Indian culture and traditions. The magnificent structures at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Preah Vihear and other religious and historical sites in Cambodia also signify the pervasive influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodian architecture. Since 1986, India through the Archaeological Survey of India has been engaged in conservation and restoration of ancient temples in Cambodia. In the late 80s and the early 90s, restoration work was carried out on Angkor Wat. Restoration of Ta Prohm Temple has completed two phases, while the third phase of work is underway. Last year, restoration work commenced on Preah Vihear, a world heritage site and one of the oldest temples of Lord Shiva. India was the first nation to offer restoration and conservation of the Angkor Wat temple, a UNESCO world heritage site, at a cost of $4 million, in response to a request by the Cambodian government. Capacity building programme Capacity building is a key area of India’s engagement with Cambodia. It is actively assisting Phnom Penh in capacity building and human resource development through training slots under ITEC programme and ICCR scholarships. More than 2,200 Cambodian nationals have been imparted training under ITEC program since 1981. 30 ICCR scholarships are available to Cambodian students on an annual basis. In 2015, as part of the ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund (AICF), India established the Centre of Excellence in Software Development and Training (CESDT) in the Cambodian capital to increase workforce employability while bridging the gap between academia and business. India’s commitment to business development training goes back to 2006 when New Delhi set up a training facility called the Cambodia-India Entrepreneurship Development Centre (renamed as Cambodia-India Entrepreneurship Development Institute later) in Phnom Penh under which students are offered 4-year bachelor’s degree and short-term vocational courses in areas such as monetary management, information technology, business, and marketing. Development assistance India has offered Lines of credit of around $100 million to Cambodia for projects in infrastructure, water resources and power transmission lines amongst others. Phnom Penh has benefited from 48 quick impact projects targeted towards local communities in areas such as education, health, sanitation, ecotourism, and infrastructure. 31 of these have been completed and 17 of these projects are under implementation. Defence Cooperation India enjoys strong defence ties with Cambodia. The first army-to-army staff talks between India and Cambodia were conducted in April 2023. Lieutenant-General Hun Manet, who is the Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, visited India this year in February. India provides training courses for Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, besides giving training in demining and peacekeeping modules. It also provides demining equipment. Indian Navy and Coast Guard ships undertake regular visits to Cambodian ports, while exchange of official delegations between the two-armed forces is a routine matter. India has extended a grant of $1.5 million for procurement of demining equipment, gifted sniffer dogs and offered a $50 million line of credit for capacity building and other related works for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Customized training courses for more than 80 Cambodian Armed personnel will be held this year in different areas. Conclusion In the backdrop of the ongoing multifarious relations between the two countries, King Sihamoni’s maiden visit has sent a strong strategic signal about Cambodia’s desire to deepen ties with India. It has helped in adding a thrust to greater engagement between the two countries in the area of trade, economic, defence and culture. ***The writer is a PhD scholar from JNU’s School of International Studies; views expressed are her own