Cambodia’s increasing tilt towards China: A practical but not sustainable foreign policy manoeuvre

A short article published in Mekong Connect of the Asian Vision Institute.


By Kimkong Heng

The proposition that Cambodia tilts towards China has apparently rooted in the 2012 ASEAN Foreign Ministers (AMM) fiasco. The Kingdom was criticised for aligning itself so closely with China after constantly turning down her ASEAN fellows’ proposed wordings condemning China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. As a non-claimant state, Cambodia has often reiterated its stance of staying out of the South China Sea dispute, involving China and some ASEAN Member States, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Notwithstanding this claim, political observers and analysts are not entirely convinced and point to the massive influx of aid and loans as well as foreign direct investment from China as the root cause of Cambodia’s lack of willingness to criticise China’s alleged aggression in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.

For various reasons, Cambodia has been labelled particularly by the West as a vassal state of China. The country has helped Beijing to expand its regional and international ambitions and has enthusiastically supported Chinese projects and initiatives such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). (In fact, many countries also support the Chinese initiatives; however, Cambodia’s keen support of them seems to be in the spotlight given strong Sino-Cambodian ties and China’s growing presence in the Kingdom) in exchange for Phnom Penh’s loyal support, China has continued to back the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen providing financial assistance and other forms of tangible benefits. China, for example, invested US$5.3 billion in Cambodia between 2013 and 2017. It has envisaged to increase its bilateral trade volume with Cambodia from US$6 billion in 2017 to US$10 billion by 2023. China has further granted roughly US$90 million in aid to strengthen Cambodia’s defence sector, and it has recently pledged almost US$600 million in aid to Cambodia for a three-year period from 2019 to 2021.

China is at present Cambodia’s closest ally and the largest donor and biggest economic influencer. Beijing is also the top donor of military aid to Phnom Penh. Both countries conducted their third “Golden Dragon” joint military exercises in March 2019, amidst the Kingdom’s suspension of its annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the US since 2017. These moves and the increasing economic and military engagements between Beijing and Phnom Penh seem to signal the latter’s pivot away from the West and towards China.
Given China’s growing power and the escalating superpower rivalry, Cambodia’s
deepening relationship with China and of course the Kingdom’s increasing tilt towards China have generated unease within Southeast Asian region and beyond. No doubt, Phnom Penh’s increasingly close ties with Beijing will continue to have implications for ASEAN in relation to the unresolved maritime territorial disputes between some ASEAN Members and China. Cambodia, perceived by many as a Chinese client state, might continue to act in favour of China at the expense of ASEAN unity.
Outside of ASEAN, Cambodia’s closer embrace of China and Chinese development
initiatives have caused discomfort in Washington. In particular, the United States of
America has begun to realise Cambodia’s strategic significance, despite it being a small state with limited resources and capability, in the broad theatre of Sino-American geopolitical struggle for dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. Rumours and allegations by the US over a potential Chinese naval base in the southwestern Cambodian provinces of Koh Kong and Sihanoukville, despite a lack of solid evidence supporting the allegations, are a case in point showing Washington’s attention on Cambodia.

Considering the contexts of Cambodia’s socio-economic development and political needs, the country’s increasing pivot to China as well as its embrace of Chinese initiatives, particularly the BRI, is understandable and pragmatic. Cambodia certainly needs China and BRI-linked Chinese investments to support its practical development efforts in all sectors, be it economic, military or political. In terms of the economy, Chinese investments and tourism have positively contributed to Cambodia’ economic growth and competitiveness through infrastructure development, capital inflow, employment opportunities.

As for politics, Cambodia’s stable and robust economic growth, partly enabled by the massive influx of Chinese investment, is important for the political legitimacy and stability of the Hun Sen regime. In fact, diffused infrastructure development and strong economic performance may have helped to minimise and offset any feeling of anger and resentment among some Cambodians whose expectations have yet to be fulfilled by the government.

Moreover, Cambodia’s bandwagoning policy with China is seen to align well with the former’s current political needs and its perceived drift away from competitive election-based rule. Obviously, Cambodia’s increasing pivot to China is a practical course of action for Phnom Penh, given pressure from domestic politics and from the West, not least the potential revocation of the preferential trading scheme by the European Union.

In spite of the practical needs of Cambodia’s close alignment with China, such a foreign policy manoeuvring is not a sustainable approach and should raise concerns among Cambodian policymakers and political elites. Not only will Cambodia’s international image continue to be further tarnished in the sense that the country is invariably seen as a Chinese client state, but such an exclusive alignment with the Asian superpower will also affect the Kingdom’s democratic and human rights progress, believed by critics to have deteriorated.

Although there are strong economic and political benefits resulting from Cambodia’s strengthening ties with China and its enthusiastic support of Chinese initiatives and investment, the benefits from development are believed to have been less inclusive and environment-friendly. There are reports of widening gaps between the rich and the poor and of growing resentments among average Cambodians who believe they have not really benefited much from the huge influx of Chinese people and investments.

Another major area of concern is the issue of China’s debt trap, although at present this issue is far from alarming, at least in the eyes of the Cambodian leadership. According to the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance, Cambodia owes China more than US$4 billion, or approximately two-fifths of the country’s outstanding national debt. The fact that China continues to provide Cambodia with “no string-attached” aid and concessional loans, while the management of Chinese cash has not been proven effective, should render the concern regarding the Chinese debt-trap diplomacy more pressing.

Most importantly, Cambodia’s increasing tilt towards China has implications for its relations with the US and EU. Cambodia-US relations have reached a new low due to their growing strategic mistrust as evidenced by the recent US allegations of Cambodia’s making a secret deal that would allow a Chinese military base on its soil. For its ties with the EU, there are challenges needing to be addressed, notably with regard to the imminent withdrawal of trade preferences given to Cambodia under the EU’s Everything-But-Arms (EBA) trade scheme.

Considering all these aspects, it is important that Cambodia should rethink its current foreign policy approach, which is somewhat heavily tilted towards China at the cost of its ties with the West, some ASEAN Members and other important strategic partners. A more sustainable, flexible and long-term approach to foreign policy is thus needed, and it requires Cambodia to skilfully strike a good balance in its relations with the superpowers and pursue an inclusive foreign policy approach guided by pragmatism and sophistication.

Engaging all strategic partners, especially its immediate neighbours, and maintaining good relations with all major and emerging powers in both the East and the West, the North and the South, are the way forward for a small state that has geopolitical and strategic relevance to great power rivalries like Cambodia.

Kimkong Heng is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Queensland and a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Published by Kimkong Heng

A student, teacher, educator, and researcher

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