Cambodia: Between China and the United States


The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is facing two major strategic challenges: its collective unity and balancing between China and the United States as they compete for influence in the region. As an ASEAN member state, one of the major challenges for Cambodia’s current and future strategic situation is and will be the competition for influence between the United States and China. This strategic challenge will shape Cambodia’s current and future agenda for political reform, economic development, foreign policy, and national defense.

Both China and the United States have been competing for interest and influence in Southeast Asia in general and in Cambodia in particular. As a result, Cambodia faces tough decisions in choosing between the two superpowers and in balancing its relationships with China and the United States so that Cambodia’s interests are not compromised. Cambodia is also striving to gain the most possible benefit out of this superpower rivalry.  In particular, Cambodia will need to carefully balance its relationship with China to ensure that effective Cambodia-U.S. relations are not compromised. Both China and the United States are considered to be vital to Cambodia’s economic and security development, and a collaborative approach will deliver an optimal outcome for Cambodia.

It is clear that Chinese and U.S. strategic interests in Cambodia are conflicting. The national elections in July 2013, while a major breakthrough in Cambodian politics, have clearly shown that both ruling and opposition parties have used China and the United States for their political objectives. During the election campaign, the opposition party called on the United States and the West for political support accusing the ruling government of not respecting democratic principles, violating human rights, injustice, and corruption. In response, U.S. lawmakers from both the House and Senate threatened to cut aid to Cambodia if the election was not ‘credible and competitive.’ In the political deadlock following the election, while both the United States and the European Union refused to recognized the result and called for Cambodia to independently investigate alleged election irregularities. China promptly endorsed the result and congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for their victory. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also visited Cambodia to further strengthen and expand relations and cooperation adding that its success would ensure continuation of a healthy relationship with China.

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Another example of conflicting interests between the two super powers was seen through the Cambodian government decision to expel twenty anti-Chinese Muslim Uyghur asylum seekers in 2009 at the request of Beijing.  This resulted in condemnation from the United States, which accused Cambodia of failing to take into account the individuals’ welfare under international law and of violating its international obligations. The United States also warned Cambodia’s move would impact bilateral relations. It then decided to halt shipment of 200 military trucks and trailers to the Cambodian military. China made a quick and opportunistic response in an attempt to counter the United States by providing additional aid to the Cambodian military worth hundreds of million of dollars. China’s move also clearly aimed to send the message to Washington that while the United States sends used surplus vehicles to Cambodia, China is willing to send a great number of new vehicles and uniforms as well. China clearly sees itself competing with the United States for favor in Cambodia.

During the visit to Cambodia by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, a message was delivered to Cambodia that it should not depend too much on China and should seek to diversify its sources of aid, and build an independent foreign policy.

U.S. efforts to gain influence in the region was also demonstrated by the 2010 launch of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), in which the United States pledged $187 million during ministerial level meetings between Clinton and the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Cambodia’s excessive dependence on China has placed Cambodia’s foreign policy under China’s influence. U.S. suspicions were confirmed, for example, during Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2012 when Cambodia backed China’ core interest regarding its South China Sea disputes with several ASEAN member states. This resulted in ASEAN being unable to achieve consensus – ‘the ASEAN way’ – and failing to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45 year-history. This has caused problems for Cambodia within ASEAN and it is now viewed with suspicion by its neighbors. Likewise, in relation to China’s environmental issues, Cambodia is reluctant to criticize or protest either individually or with other nations, Chinese dam buildings on the Mekong, despite their potential affect on millions of Cambodians who depend heavily on river water for drinking, irrigation and fishing.

In their efforts to influence Cambodia’s political allegiance, the United States and China have adopted different aid and development strategies. The United States has been the strongest supporter of social, economic, and political development, democratization, trade, investment, regional security, civil society, and most importantly, human rights. China, though, has been the strongest supporter for developing infrastructure such as roads, bridges and public buildings, and without attaching conditions. The key strategic interests of the two nations in Cambodia are that the United States seeks to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, whereas China places greater emphasis on natural resources, business and political advantage. Moreover, U.S. aid is subject to strict conditions, while Chinese aid has ‘no strings attached’.

Cambodia’s strategic environment is complex.  Not only are the United States and China competing for influence in Cambodia, but also in the ASEAN region generally and with Cambodia’s immediate neighbors. While China has strong relations with Thailand and the United States, Vietnam has stepped up its relationship with the United States aiming to strike a balance against Chinese influence in the region. China has recently undertaken activity to reclaim land in the South China Sea such as construction of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. This has become a source of tension between China and a number of the ASEAN nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. Maintaining good relations with each of these countries is considered important for Cambodia. As such, it will be important to be mindful of the challenges imposed by these tensions and to find a way to work effectively with each of the nations involved.

The current conflict is likely to be increasingly tense as Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had warned his ASEAN colleagues in May 2014 that China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is an “extremely dangerous action” directly endangering peace, stability, security, and marine safety. Both Vietnam and the Philippines undoubtedly expected stronger support from their ASEAN member’s states.

During ASEAN’s 26th Summit held in Malaysia, the grouping issued a strong statement expressing “serious concerns” about China’s aggressive action in the sea and calling for quicker action in negotiating a code of conduct between China and regional grouping. However, given that all ASEAN members have tremendous economic benefit from China, the statement is unlikely to change China’s calculus. As a consequence, Chinese dominance in the South China Sea is highly probable to be eventually accepted. Thus, Cambodia will need to keep an eye on its neighbors at the same time as it strikes a balance between them as well as between the United States and China. It must also balance relations with other U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia which are major donors for Cambodia’s economic and social development.

It is possible for Cambodia to benefit from the two superpowers to create a better future for itself and the Cambodian people. Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the region and its primary national interests are economic development, poverty reduction, good governance, democratization, human rights and the rule of law. Cambodia is dependent on aid for national development. Both China and the United States have fitted in with Cambodia’s national development needs. The United States wants Cambodia to be democratic, have a free market economy, be committed to rule of law and to support so-called international norms of human rights, good governance and the like. On the other hand, China offers Cambodia massive investment in infrastructure and industry: roads, bridges, railways, dams and other public works of this nature. It also offers aid and grants without conditions attached.

If Cambodia aligns more with China, this could undercut respect for the principle of human rights, the practice of good governance, and could set back democratisation in Cambodia. It could threaten trade and investment with the United States (particularly in the garments sector that exports around 70 percent of its goods to the U.S. market) and with other western countries. In contrast, if Cambodia aligns with the United States, it risks annoying China which could withdraw or delay major projects and aid.  At the same time, Cambodia under pressure from the United States for political reforms may do more to end corruption, and improve respect for human rights and freedom of expression.

In sum, there is not much apparent benefit derived by aligning with China or the United States only. Taking sides with either of these two superpowers presents risks for Cambodia. Maintaining the ‘ASEAN Way’ and ASEAN centrality would best serve Cambodia’s national interests and foreign policy. Therefore, what Cambodia must do is to balance China and the U.S. simultaneously. Both China and the United States have a role to play. It is up to Cambodia to balance the needs of both superpowers and try to act in a way that satisfies both. Cambodia must sort out its domestic priorities such as eliminating corruption and cronyism, reducing land evictions, preserving human rights, holding open elections, giving land concessions and so on. At the same time it needs new infrastructure and resource development which, if properly shared and managed, can also contribute to economic opportunity, poverty reduction and human rights.

U.S. and Chinese interests can be supplementary, but they are definitely not confrontational. It is great power competition, but not confrontation. The two great powers should understand Cambodia’s position and find common ground. That way, all can gain.

Veasna Var is a PhD student in the Program in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA). The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Emeritus Professor Carlyle A. Thayer at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra; and Dr. Peter T. Quinn, currently a Fellow Researcher at Australian National University, Canberra for their valuable advice and comments on the article.

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