Open societies, which promote international trade, labor mobility, and regional cooperation, are fundamental to economic development and prosperity in the classical liberal tradition. Cambodia has pushed for increased openness and regional integration in recent years, particularly within the borders of its ASEAN counterparts. For example, in tandem with the 20th and 21st ASEAN summits in Phnom Penh in 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for increased integration by removing trade barriers and liberalizing frameworks so as to transform the region into a global market with free-flowing goods, services, investment, skilled labor and capital. The reform toward regional integration was seen as necessary preparation before Cambodia’s entrance into the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.
The important of economic openness in the region is best characterized by Vannarith Chheang in his article, “Cambodia—Laos—Vietnam: Economic Reforms and Sub-regional Integration". Chheang asserts that it is this openness, paired with an export-oriented development model, that has allowed the three countries to achieve strong growth rates. Moreover, such integration is necessary for Cambodia’s economic survival, according to Chheang. For example, Vietnam has five times as much FDI as Cambodia and Laos, making it attractive to Cambodia to place its eastern neighbor at the center of economic relations. Increased openness will also promote Cambodia’s tourism industry, which is becoming an increasingly key sector in the Mekong region.
All the same, Chheang notes that there are several obstacles set before regional integration in Cambodian, Laos, and Vietnam. The countries can best be described as a “mixed region.” That is to say, the high level of growth rates and economic potential of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are paired with high rates of poverty, inequality, and geopolitical instability. A challenge for these countries will be moving beyond gains in GDP, GNI, or other statistical measurements, toward poverty reduction and the enhancement of individual freedoms. (Hopefully, in Cambodia, the market-based economy and outward-looking development strategy will translate into tangible improvements in the lives of common citizens.)
Lastly, of particular interest regarding regional integration is labor mobility. In my last blog post, I mentioned one of Cambodia’s most pressing obstacles in attracting investment: moving beyond low-wage, low-skill work into sectors where productivity, and the value-added of products, is higher. Such work requires the recruitment of more skilled laborers, of which Cambodia has few. The challenge of recruiting workers for more complex industrial processes can therefore be solved by “the porous borders envisioned by ASEAN,” allowing higher-skilled Thai and Vietnamese workers to move the industry forward, particularly within the Special Economic Zones along Cambodia’s border (which will be discussed in another blog post). This will also require increased investment in human resources and technology, particularly in the training of unskilled workers.
In recent times, various examples of initiatives promoting regional integration continue to be seen, such as Cambodia’s place in the One Belt, One Road initiative  (more on this particular project linked in the notes). Ties to fellow ASEAN countries continue to grow, and Cambodia—possessing one of the most liberal market economies in the region—has the opportunity to use these geographical linkages, traditional friendship, and economic relationships to its advantage.
 Vong Sokheng, Anne Renzenbrink, Hun Sen: remove ASEAN trade barriers, Phnom Penh Post, 31 October 2012, accessed on 28 July 2017
 Hul Reaksmey, Joshua Wilwohl, Plans to Reform Economy for Asean Integration, Cambodia Daily, 1 November 2013, accessed on 28 July 2017
 Vannarith Chheang, Yushan Wong, Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam: Economic Reform and Regional Integration, Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace, accessed on 28 July 2017
 Janelle Retka, Cambodia Positions Itself Along New Silk Road, Cambodia Daily, 27 June 2016, accessed on 28 July 2017
 Explainer: China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, Hong Kong Free Press, 6 March 2016, accessed on 28 July 2017