The West’s Cambodia Dilemma

This article was published by Pacific Forum on 13 Oct 2020. An earlier version of this article was published in New Mandala.


By Kimkong Heng

The European Union and the United States face a Cambodia dilemma: Both have imposed sanctions in response to Cambodia’s drift from democracy, risking Phnom Penh’s further alignment with Beijing and thus strengthening China’s ascent, something Europe and the US have also sought to prevent. However, too soft of an approach risks encouraging the rise of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.

What, then, is to be done?

Following the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017, the US cut aid to Cambodia, while imposing sanctions on several senior Cambodian military officers and tycoons who have close ties with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Ties had already been strained when, earlier in 2017, Phnom Penh decided to cancel joint Angkor Sentinel military exercises. Although both countries are working to mend relations, it remains unclear how this détente will last: the Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the US-China strategic rivalry and reaffirmed President Donald Trump’s strategy of “America First.”

The EU, on the other hand, cites Cambodia’s worsening human and labor rights violations as the justification for suspending the Everything But Arms trade agreement. The EU argues that Cambodia’s democracy has declined after unprecedented government crackdowns on press freedom and the banning of the CNRP, and that trade sanctions are intended to reverse the latter’s drift away from democracy.

However, Phnom Penh considers the move a threat to its sovereignty and interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs and has pushed back especially hard against them. The government argues that the CNRP was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 because it was convicted of espionage and colluding with foreign powers to topple the government.

Furthermore, they argue, if the EU really cared about human rights, why would it forge trade agreements with Vietnam, with its “appalling” human rights record? Why does the EU not impose trade sanctions on countries with a deteriorating human rightsrecord, such as the Philippines?

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The Politics of Survival and Cambodia’s Post-COVID-19 Foreign Policy

Image: AIIA

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.

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How Can Scholars Contribute to the Development of Cambodia?

Image: Cambodianess

This article was originally published by Cambodia Development Center and republished by Cambodianess.


By Kimkong Heng

Scholars are people who pursue academic and intellectual activities. They are intelligent and well-educated people who know a lot about particular topics. In any society, scholars, researchers, academics, professionals, and other highly educated individuals have an important role to play to contribute to the development of their country.

In Cambodia, as is also true elsewhere, there are certain moral expectations that intellectuals or scholars must take part in fostering the positive development of Cambodian society. The expectations are high and have been embedded in the role of this group of educated people.

Cambodian people often speak of how intellectuals in previous generations sacrificed their time, energy, or even freedom and life to contribute to the betterment of Cambodia. From preserving Khmer literature and language to protecting Cambodian land and dignity, there are many accounts of noble sacrifice and patriotic endeavors. These heroic accounts provide lessons and sources of motivation for the current generation of Cambodians, lifting their spirit and soul and encouraging their courage and heroism.

Given the current political context which appears to discourage intellectuals and educated individuals to contribute their part to the development of Cambodia, the role of scholars and researchers has been put under scrutiny and criticism. Some criticize that these educated Cambodians do not play their role effectively or meaningfully, citing their indifference, selfishness, and lack of activism. Others blame these intellectuals for their lack of involvement in bringing about positive changes to society or their lack of confidence, patriotism, and heroism to effect changes and make a difference.

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Factors influencing academics’ research engagement and productivity: A developing countries perspective

This article was published in Issues in Educational Research on 24 September 2020.

The abstract

The method

The framework (developed from the literature review)

The authors

Click here to download the article.

All images from from the article.

Cambodia Must Move Beyond its “Double Standard” Narrative

Image: Picante Today

This article was published by The Geopolitics on 12 September 2020.


By Kimkong Heng

Cambodia must jettison its narrative claiming that the European Union has practiced double standards when the bloc decided to withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which Cambodia has enjoyed since 2001.

On Aug. 12, the EU’s decision to partially withdraw the EBA trade scheme from Cambodia came into force, resulting in a loss of about one-fifth of its tariff-free and quota-free exports to the EU market.

In response to the EU’s decision to withdraw its EBA trade scheme, the Cambodian government has used a narrative along the lines of “the EU’s double standards” to influence public opinion. This narrative has not helped to address the economic and political challenges facing the country. As a matter of fact, it appears to be counterproductive, potentially preventing constructive dialogue between Cambodia and the EU.

Cambodia has already lost part of the benefits it has received from the EBA preferences. Therefore, the government and its officials should refrain from accusing the EU or promoting narratives that only provoke divisions among Cambodians and potentially lead to further loss of trade benefits.

In fact, it may be reasonable to continue dubbing the EU’s EBA decision as “extreme injustice” or “double standards” by comparing the EU’s treatment of Cambodia to how it treats other countries in Southeast Asia; however, claiming that the EU is immoral, unjust and hypocritical will do nothing to regain the EBA status or improve the status quo. Neither can it support Cambodia’s economic recovery plan post-COVID-19.

It is crucial to understand that Cambodia still needs the EU and other key partners such as the United States. Thus, Cambodia must not only refrain from actions that are seen as serving China’s core strategic interests but also reverse its democratic backsliding that has triggered the EU’s trade sanctions as well as the U.S.’s visa sanctions and asset freeze imposed on several of Cambodia’s top officials for contributing to human rights violations and democratic setbacks.

Cambodia should focus on improving the human rights situation on the ground and end the growing repression on its citizen. Since August, the government has arrested 14 environmental activists and youth – a move that seems to show no sign of slowing down.

Prominent union leader Rong Chhun, a long-time government critic, was arrested in July by speaking out about alleged irregularities concerning border demarcation with Vietnam. Many of the recent arrests and those in the past months have been seen as arbitrary, with an aim to silence dissident voices.

The continuation of repression and authoritarian turn will certainly draw more criticism and sanctions, impacting on the government’s efforts to sustain economic growth and recover Cambodia’s failing economy hit by COVID-19. The combined effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the EBA withdrawal will continue to wreak havoc on the country’s export-driven economy, potentially putting an end to its vibrant garment industries that are now in danger as around 250 factories have so far suspended operations. This is not to mention the severe impact of COVID-19 on other sectors such as tourismeducation and entertainment, among others.

It is therefore high time for Cambodia to constructively and meaningfully engage the EU to avoid losing more benefits, particularly those given under the EBA trade arrangements. Harping on the EU’s unfair treatment or double standards will bring Cambodia nowhere. The EU has already stated that the partial withdrawal of EBA was due to “serious and systematic concerns related to human rights” in Cambodia.

The EU has further noted that if Cambodia made a “substantial improvement” in human rights and labor rights, it would consider restoring “fully free access” to the EU market for Cambodian products. In this regard, it seems that the key to regaining the full EBA status or retaining what is left is in the hands of the Cambodian government. It comes down to the matter of prioritization, willingness and commitment.

What is the Cambodian government’s main priority? National interests or regime survival? What is the government’s willingness? Finding an acceptable compromise with the EU or continuing to criticize the bloc’s decision on the grounds of protecting Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty? What is the government’s commitment? Improving the human rights situation and the rule of law in the country or pursuing the politics of repression on its citizens, especially the opposition group? These are the questions that will determine the fate of the EBA status and other trade privileges as well as the future of Cambodia in the near and immediate future.

Cambodia has found itself in a challenging position amid the U.S.-China strategic competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. To avoid being caught in the middle of great power rivalry, the country needs to adopt a smart and flexible foreign policy. It must continue to restore and improve its relations with the U.S. that has reached a new low in recent years.

Meanwhile, Cambodia needs to promote human rights and democratic values to avoid further loss of the EBA scheme and more damage to its tarnished international image.

In addition to working to diversify its export markets, revitalize its underdeveloped agricultural industry and undertake reforms to state institutions, Cambodia needs to prioritize education, research and technology adoption. The country must push for the development of more technocratic leaders, technicians and knowledge workers. It also needs to improve business environment to boost investment and increase competitiveness.

More importantly, Cambodia must make greater efforts to promote inclusive growth and sustainable development, especially bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. Providing more freedom for its citizens to voice their concerns on issues of significance to them and their community rather than restricting and silencing them using force and legal means should be promoted.

No doubt, there are a lot of challenges that confront Cambodia as it endeavors to transition into an upper middle-income country by 2030 and achieve other short and long-term goals, including catching up with its peers in the region; however, while trying to realize those goals, Cambodia must first move beyond the EU “double standard” narrative.

Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). He is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. All views expressed are his own.

A similar version of this article was published in the Diplomat.