The bilateral relationship between Cambodia and China experienced a remarkable transformation over the last two decades. The relations were initially rooted in mistrust due to the involvement of China in Cambodia’s civil war and social strife, especially Beijing’s support for the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s and the 1980s. The ties between the two countries progressively strengthened since 1997, when China forged especially close ties with Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. These two countries saw opportunities in cultivating relations at this time.
For Cambodia, after experiencing international isolation after Hun Sen violently overthrew his co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in early July 1997, the country turned to China for political and economic support. It was a golden opportunity for Beijing as it sought influence in the region in general and Cambodia in particular. As a result, Beijing endorsed the result of the coup and took a stand against the imposition of international sanctions.
In order to further facilitate common interests, both sides decided to bury their past political antagonisms. They focused on developing improved relations. Before 1996, China offered support to Hun Sen’s political opponent, then first Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, considering the Phnom Penh government a puppet of Vietnam. In 1998, Hun Sen called China “the root of everything that was evil”. Hun Sen now described China as Cambodia’s most trusted friend. This turnabout took place despite Beijing’s past support for the murderous Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people and continued its support to Pol Pot during the 1980s.
In the last decade or so, Cambodia has moved much closer to China in almost every aspect, leading some scholars and analysts to view Cambodia-China relations as a client-patron relationship. This relationship is widely seen as based on convergent interests and a basic “quid pro quo”. While China sees Cambodia as an important strategic location to advance its national interests, Cambodia also sees China’s rise and influence as an opportunity to obtain urgently needed economic development and political support. Since 1997, bilateral relations between the two countries have been remarkably consolidated and elevated into a new era of cooperation. In December 2010, Cambodia and China upgraded their bilateral ties to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation”, marking a significant milestone of bilateral cooperation. Lately, Cambodia has considered China as its most reliable development partner. In particular, Cambodia has become increasingly drawn to China’s “no-strings-attached” development assistance.
Clearly, Cambodia has been drawn to China given its offers of significant infrastructure investments and development aid. The relationship between the two became even closer when President Xi Jinping made his first visit as president to Cambodia in October 2016. His visit shows the considerable economic interests for Cambodia through a wide range of bilateral agreements. Included in these were USD 240 million in loans, the cancellation of nearly USD 90 million in debt, USD 14 million in military aid and several others deals.
Xi Jinping told his counterpart Hun Sen that “China attaches great importance to ties with Cambodia and stands ready to enhance the comprehensive strategic cooperation and contribute to regional peace and prosperity”. He places a high values on the two countries’ partnership as “iron-clad friends”. In response, Hun Sen has described China as his country’s “closest friend”. In a 2017 speech, Hun Sen described China as a “most trustworthy friend”.
Cambodia is widely viewed as one of China’s best and most complaint friends and allies. Beijing not only provides massive development assistance but also promotes foreign direct investment in critical development fields such as energy, transportation, textiles, agriculture and tourism. China is Cambodia’s biggest foreign investor, a major trading partner and the leading aid donor. Cambodia has also received substantial military cooperation aid as well as political backing from Beijing.
Cambodia’s strengthening relationship with China attracted particular attention from the news media, political commentators, and scholars. Cambodia was labelled a Chinese client state. With the deepening of cooperation and interdependence with them, the two countries have come to believe that a closer partnership is in line with their common interests. Beijing asserts that its partnership with the kingdom is based on the key principle of mutual interests and equal partnership.
Cambodia and China have intensified their attempts to forge and continuously reinvigorate a mutually interactive relationship. Bilateral ties between the two are expected to grow even stronger and more deeply through Beijing’s most ambitious project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Both countries appear to stand to gain considerable benefits from their unique and symbiotic relationship. However, the growing importance of the two countries’ ties raises a question of why a powerful country in the world has become the closest friend with a small and poor state like Cambodia.
In Cambodia, Beijing’s interests are viewed as mainly seeking geopolitical influence in the region. Moreover, political and core national considerations such as supporting China’s international agenda, Taiwan/One China policy and South China Sea issues are also factors driving China’s influence in Cambodia.
Cambodia’s geographical and economic landscapes have allowed Cambodia-China bilateral relations to take a vital position in Beijing’s foreign policy. In Beijing’s eyes, Cambodia is important geopolitically because the country holds a very important strategic location in mainland Southeast Asia as well as being a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). As analyst David Koh points out, “having a strong ally in Cambodia means China occupying a central position on Indochina”.
In terms of strategic importance, Cambodia plays an important role in China’s strategy to project greater influence in Southeast Asia and protect its expanding commercial and business interests. Cambodia is important to the giant because of it provides air, land and sea access to the eastern Gulf of Thailand. Access to Cambodia therefore provides China with options to address its disputes in the South China Sea with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, especially to secure its claim on the Spratly Islands and natural resources in the South China Sea. For example, in the case of conflict, China may need Cambodia as a strategic, sea-accessible location from which to launch a timely response.
China should not interfere in Cambodian political affairs as this would damage China’s credibility and possibly result in a pro-democracy political blowback against China.
Consequently, China has assisted Cambodia’s naval capability by providing a number of patrol boats and warships. Since 2005, Beijing has provided nine patrol boats and five warships and Cambodia expects to receive more from China. Although China argues that the purpose of this naval assistance is to strengthen Cambodia’s maritime capability to fight off pirates and drug smugglers, which is partly true, this assistance can also be seen as an overt attempt to establish a military point of access to counteract present and future threats that arise in the region. China’s military assistance to the Cambodian navy can also be seen as improving its capacity and capability in order to protect China’s interest in Cambodia, especially relevant ports that import and export Chinese goods and to protect interests such as sugar, tourists, and industries from Koh Kong province.
The recent alleged reports of signing a secret deal to allow Chinese military troops and assets to be stationed at the Cambodian naval base would be the evidence of Beijing’s placing geostrategic and geopolitics importance in Cambodia. According to the Wall Street Journal, Cambodia and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) signed a pact for the PLA to access parts of the Ream Navy Base on the Gulf of Thailand. The location is close to a large airport a Chinese state-owned firm is constructing. According to Chinese experts, the port had “the capacity for military use”, pointing out there was a “pattern of dual use port development [by China] in Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Burma.” However, Cambodian officials dismissed the accusation claiming as “fake news” and “ill-intentioned against Cambodia”. Nevertheless, if it becomes reality, a Chinese naval base in Cambodia would provide Beijing with an enhanced ability and capability to assert contested territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea as well as countering US and its ally’s interests in Southeast Asia.
In addition to its strategic importance, Cambodia offers China active political support on particular issues that are major concerns to the giant’s core national interests, such as the Taiwan issue and the dispute on the South China Sea between China and several ASEAN member states, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. China employed its influence in Phnom Penh while Cambodia was ASEAN chair in 2012 to effectively shape ASEAN discussions on the South China Sea. It was a prime example of Beijing’s interest in having close ties with the kingdom in order to further its foreign policy.
As a result of fruitful bilateral cooperation, China’s influence in Cambodian politics increasingly grew. China began to exert political pressure quite effectively on Cambodia to further a number of Beijing’s policies. This was evident when in 2001, a Chinese diplomat lobbied the National Assembly to block passage of legislation to establish a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders. Under pressure from the international community, the Phnom Penh government eventually accepted the framework of setting up of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Although the Chinese attempts at lobbying were unsuccessful, under China’s influence Cambodia engaged in delaying tactics.
Cambodia has also sided with China on other issues of concern to Beijing. For example, the E-P3 incident off Hainan Island in 2001 in which Cambodia backed China’s political position. Similarly, Cambodia’s denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend the Third World Buddhist Summit in Phnom Penh, repressing Falun Gong activities in the country in 2002, and withdrawing its support for Japan’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat in 2005, are just some examples of China’s growing influence in Cambodia.
Another prime example demonstrating Cambodia’s foreign policy under China’s growing influence occurred in December 2009. Under considerable pressure from the international community and major powers especially the US, Cambodia forcefully deported 20 Uyghur asylum seekers to China. The move by the Phnom Penh government led to the US to cut some military aid to Cambodia. In return, during his visit, the then Vice President Xi Jinping thanked Cambodia for the action and pledged a USD 1.2 billion aid package for Cambodia. This decision clearly demonstrated that Cambodia was under Chinese pressure in exchange for aids and loans.
As China gains significant political and economic influence over the small but key strategic country of Cambodia, it will be able to push back against US and other western countries’ influence in the kingdom. The current US and EU hard-line approaches toward Cambodia as a result of human rights and democratic deterioration have pushed the kingdom into closer embrace with China.
China and Cambodia’s close bilateral ties have also met with significant challenges. For China, its political and economic engagements in Cambodia are viewed as serving its own strategic interests and Cambodia’s elites at the expense of the majority of the local Cambodian people. This has damaged its attempt to build soft power in Cambodia. As for Cambodia, the relation has brought significant challenges to its foreign policy and democratic development.
China is viewed as pursuing a win-win-lose policy in Cambodia whereby Chinese and Cambodian elites are the winners and Cambodians in general is the loser. In order for both countries to obtain benefits from these ties, China and Cambodia should change their current engagement and focus more on transparency, accountability, and the ordinary Cambodian people. Only by doing so can a win-win-win solution be achieved.
China should not interfere in Cambodian political affairs as this would damage China’s credibility and possibly result in a pro-democracy political blowback against China. The participation of the Chinese Ambassador at Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party election rally during the 2018 general election is a clear instance of Chinese interference in Cambodia’s domestic affairs, and it goes against China’s claim that it does not interfere in other countries’ internal issues. China is widely viewed in Cambodia as playing a behind-the-scenes role in the Cambodian government’s growing repression.
It is in China’s interest to engage with the international community to find a way to resolve Cambodia’s political crisis. China would lose its significant economic benefits in Cambodia if the country’s political crisis remains in deadlock and if various sanctions, the EU's threatened withdrawal of Cambodia’s Everything But Arms tariff privileges in particular, come into effect.
It will be difficult if not impossible for China to win the Cambodian people’s hearts and minds and convince the world of China’s peaceful rise unless China addresses two sets of issues: (1) transparency, accountability and promotion of democratic governance and (2) the effectiveness of China’s development assistance in promoting the wellbeing of the ordinary Cambodian people and their natural environment.