When it chaired the ASEAN Summit in the autumn of 2012, Cambodia arranged for the South China Sea issue to be dropped from the joint statement. This left the strong impression that Cambodia was a mouthpiece for China in Southeast Asia. It is true that China has made significant investments in Cambodia and that the latter’s economy has become increasingly dependent on Chinese money.
In early 2018, I spoke with a number of government officials, media representatives and researchers in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, about Cambodia’s foreign policy and awareness of international affairs. One of the impressions that these interviews left on me was that caution is needed before reaching any reductive conclusion about the relationship between Cambodia and China, specifically that Cambodia is under China’s influence. What does that mean exactly? The interviews took place over a short period of time and the number of interviewees was limited, so the findings should be treated with appropriate caution. Still, when long-term foreign residents of Cambodia were asked about the same topic, many said that they had a similar impression.
First, the emphasis in the interviews in terms of awareness of international affairs was not on the relationship between China and Cambodia, but rather the relationship between the United States and Cambodia. Many of the interviewees began with criticism of U.S. policy towards Cambodia. They criticized the exceptionally harsh position taken by the United States on the Hun Sen government and Washington’s refusal to participate in summit talks. The U.S. certainly has its reasons, but Cambodians are asking why Washington is so tough on Cambodia when the latter is already a democratic nation (leaving aside the nature of the Hun Sen government).
Second, the interviewees spoke about the positioning of Cambodia within the Obama administration’s “rebalance.” That policy was not uniformly implemented in East Asia. Its focus was on, among others, Indonesia, a country that had a close relationship with President Barack Obama, and Vietnam, which had reached a settlement with the United States. It is puzzling as to why Cambodia has been overlooked even as the United States reached an accord with Vietnam, an adversary during the Vietnam War. It is well known that the U.S. military carried out operations in eastern Cambodia during the war. The target was of course the Viet Cong, but Cambodia suffered significant damage. Despite this, Cambodia has never been offered a settlement and the fact that it was left out of the much-vaunted rebalance has caused resentment.
Third, much criticism was heard on the subject of the financial support and aid provided to Cambodia by the U.S. government predominantly flowing to foreign NGOs and other organizations active in Cambodia and the fact it was not done in close cooperation with the Cambodian government. To what extent this discourse actually reflects the reality is debatable, but it is certainly one of the fundamental criticisms of the United States.
This criticism also suggests the reason for Cambodia’s rapprochement with China. Cambodia has been the enthusiastic recipient of a number of investment projects associated with China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative. The Cambodians I spoke to offered two explanations on the subject of how to hedge against China.
First, Cambodia does not allow the facilities built by China to be diverted to military use and refuses any Chinese military presence, pointing to the Cambodian Constitution. Second, as was observed in the Sihanoukville project, Japan and other countries were used as a counterweight to China. For this project, which entailed the construction of a port, Japan was asked to develop the port itself and China was asked to develop the port’s surroundings. In the case of connectivity projects such as the construction of expressways, China is attempting to build a north-south corridor linking China and the Gulf of Thailand, while Japan is aiming to construct an east-west corridor connecting the production bases of Thailand, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. This seems to suggest that Cambodia is looking to its national interest, while at the same time striking a balance so as not to be seen as entirely in China’s pocket.
Chinese overseas investment has been massive in scale and China’s infrastructure construction technology is developing rapidly. Moreover, China does not impose human rights or democratization conditions when providing assistance to other countries, and its policy stances are decided very quickly. Despite China’s high interest rates, the reliance of many developing countries, including Cambodia, on China is completely understandable. However, that China is attempting to build new international relations by exploiting its economic power was made obvious in a speech by Xi Jinping in the autumn of 2017. From China’s viewpoint, Cambodia is one of its success stories, making the nature of the relationship that will be built between them a touchstone for the future.
There have been questions about whether some aspects of the policies of the Hun Sen government in Cambodia – media policy, for example – have taken on a Chinese tone and that authoritarianism is on the rise. In this regard, U.S. policy on Cambodia is completely understandable. What was told to me by the interviewees may simply be discourse.
If we accept, however, that Cambodia will be an important test ground for the shaping of China’s future foreign policy, it is not necessarily in the best interests of the United States if this discourse takes hold in Cambodia and shapes its foreign policy.
Compared to the United States, Japan appears to have a more flexible attitude to Cambodia, and continues to strengthen ties with the Cambodian government by way of not only summit exchanges, but also official development assistance. However, the U.S. role is vital and one that Japan can not replace on its own. Over the longer term, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that peace and stability in the region require the United States and its allies to adopt a more flexible and realistic policy on Cambodia.
Shin Kawashima is a professor at the University of Tokyo.