This article was published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 08 Oct 2020.
By Kimkong Heng
The politics of regime survival will continue to be the dominant force diving Cambodia’s foreign policy post-COVID-19. This will push Cambodia deeper into China’s orbit.
Cambodia’s foreign policy has been largely driven by the politics of regime survival. This trend will become stronger in post-pandemic Cambodia considering the concurrent impact of COVID-19, and the partial withdrawal of the European Union’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme on the country’s economy.
In recent years, Cambodia has edged towards authoritarianism with a clear trend. The country has received global media coverage for its close strategic alignment with China, ongoing crackdown on dissent, and a series of speculations that it is allowing China military access to a naval base in Sihanoukville province and other nearby ports. Cambodia has been criticised for its troubling tilt towards China, which has come at the expense of its relations with the West and countries in Southeast Asia. As small state with limited resources and power, Cambodia lacks the ability to pursue a balancing strategy in its foreign policy.
There have been ongoing arguments regarding Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy. Some have argued that Cambodia hedges rather than bandwagons completely with China. Others opine that Cambodia does not hedge, but softly bandwagons with Beijing by seeking close ties with China’s competitors, such as Vietnam and Japan. Still some argue that Cambodia, motivated by economic pragmatism, is increasingly leaning towards China and looks set to jump on Beijing’s bandwagon – at least China’s defence bandwagon.
Each argument has its own merits. However, considering recent domestic political developments, the growing great power competition for dominance in the Asia-Pacific, the United States and the EU’s sanctions, China’s increased Cambodia engagement, and the country’s economic fallout caused by COVID-19, Cambodia is seemingly shifting from a soft (or limited) to hard (or pure) bandwagoning policy in its relations with China.
The one compelling reason which explains Cambodia’s increased bandwagoning towards China is the politics of survival.