Cambodia’s foreign policy has seen remarkable improvements after 1993 when the country held its UN-organized national election. The Cambodian government’s efforts to integrate Cambodia into the region and the world have resulted in Cambodia’s membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2004. The Kingdom has overall had good relations with its neighbors and other countries in Southeast Asia and beyond.
However, as a small state Cambodia has limited strategic space to maneuver and its foreign policy dynamics face considerable challenges. The country is seen to lean toward China, its closest ally and its largest economic and military benefactor, at the expense of good relations with other countries. Cambodia’s close embrace of China has become more evident since 2012. From blocking ASEAN joint statements to supporting Beijing’s One China policy, Cambodia continues to demonstrate its willingness to embrace China. In turn, China has reciprocated through increasing “no strings attached” aid and loans to Cambodia.
Both countries upgraded their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010, and as of now China is Cambodia’s largest foreign direct investor. The trade volume between the two countries was valued at $5.8 billion in 2017, by which time China had given approximately $4.2 billion to Cambodia in the form of aid and soft loans.
While Cambodia is seen to enjoy its reciprocal relationship with the world’s second largest economy, its relations with the West look set to deteriorate.
Following the dissolution of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017 and the controversial national election in 2018, which saw the ruling party sweep all seats in the National Assembly, Cambodia’s ties with the United States reached a new low. The United States has imposed visa sanctions on high-ranking Cambodian government officials, withdrawn aid commitments, and further imposed financial sanctions, including asset freezes on the commander of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. The Cambodian ruling elites have condemned these sanctions and have repeatedly made reference to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, rhetoric Hun Sen’s government has often used to criticize the US.
Cambodia’s ties with the European Union now also face challenges. The EU has begun the internal process to withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences from Cambodia, a move the European bloc initiated in response to the Cambodia government’s perceived lack of commitment to improve its human, labor, and political rights situation. In return, Cambodia issued a communiqué calling the EU trade threat an extreme injustice. The EU has been also accused of using double standards in its treatment of Cambodia. Further, Prime Minister Hun Sen has recently warned that he would put an end to the opposition party if the EU withdraws the EBA from Cambodia.
Cambodia’s foreign policy toward the United States and the EU, analyzed in terms of recent developments, appears not to be heading in the right direction. It is not wise for Cambodia, as a small developing country, to fight against or alienate itself from the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest trading bloc. Although the Cambodian government may have strong support from China, its current approach toward the United States and the EU will not be helpful in the long run. It is certainly better to have friends on both sides of the world, rather than adopt a one-sided orientation toward friendship and foreign policy.
Hun Sen and his ruling elites’ powerful narratives of war, peace, development, poverty reduction, independence, and sovereignty are well developed and seem to be well received by many Cambodians who have first- or even second-hand experience of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Most Cambodians, if not all, would not like to experience or hear about war or social instability again at all. However, they also expect more from their country and leaders. In addition to peace and stability, they have a strong desire for better opportunities, freedom, and human rights. They want to see many social issues being addressed. While they are hopeful for the future of Cambodia, they may also be worried about a possible worst-case scenario where their country may fall victim to a new cold war in Southeast Asia. Specifically, it is conceivable that Cambodia may become an object of strategies used by China and the United States in their competition for dominance in the international system and in Southeast Asia in particular.
Cambodia’s close alignment with China, although important for Cambodia’s economic development and the ruling elites’ legitimacy, does not seem to bring about sustainable and inclusive development for all. Chinese investment, aid, and loans are generally directed at the government and the Cambodian elites. Unlike the Chinese way, the Western approach to aid, loans, and investment projects is usually channelled through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aimed at benefiting ordinary Cambodians. Although the number and amount of aid and development projects from the West are few, when compared with a large and increasing number of the Chinese investment projects, they are usually seen to promote accountability, sustainability, and inclusiveness. Chinese investment projects, however, tend to lack transparency and accountability, leading to many environmental and social issues in Cambodia. Thus, the impact of China’s development projects on the sustainable development of Cambodia is still an open question.
Cambodia’s current foreign policy, under the present conditions, is heavily oriented toward China for strategic and economic reasons, which provides a foundation too for the legitimacy of the incumbent Cambodian government. China’s no strings attached aid and loans, together with its seemingly unwavering support of the Cambodian government regardless of human rights issues or environmental concerns, seem to fit well with Hun Sen’s approach to maintaining power. Dealing with the United States and the EU is not so easy for Hun Sen and his elite team because human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy are commonly on the agenda list of the West. Hun Sen’s main agenda is seen to be different — that is, to continue winning national elections to have enough time to pave the way for a power transition, ideally from him to one of his children. Hun Sen’s oldest son, Hun Manet, is generally believed to be a likely successor, although it remains to be seen how Hun Manet can mobilize support from senior government figures and the Cambodian general public.
Pressure from domestic and international politics seems to force Cambodia to jump on China’s bandwagon while, willingly or not, having to leave the EU and the United States behind. However, Cambodia’s over-reliance on China is not a sustainable foreign policy. It cannot be guaranteed that China would support Cambodia in all situations in the future. The nature of their reciprocal relationship is dependent almost entirely upon mutual interests and benefits. Once benefits become minimal or nonexistent, their relationship will become weaker and eventually break.
In this regard, what Cambodia should do is to seek ways to improve its relations with the West and other key strategic partners such as Australia and Japan, while maintaining close relations with China. A viable approach to foreign policy that Cambodia should adopt is to balance all major powers and maintain good relations with its neighbors, not relying entirely on one at the expense of the other. Cambodia should carefully manage its relationships with China, the EU, and the United States to defend and serve Cambodia’s national interests. It is certainly not an easy task, but not an impossible one either.
Cambodia’s past history has shown that taking sides did not lead to success. The Cambodian government is encouraged to learn from past lessons and consider a more inclusive and flexible approach to foreign policy: maintaining good relationships with all major powers and its neighbors.
Kimkong Heng is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the School of Education at the University of Queensland.