Sino-Cambodian Relations:  Recent Economic and Military Cooperation
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Sino-Cambodian Relations: Recent Economic and Military Cooperation

Mar. 01, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In a conference on Sino-Cambodian cooperation held in June 2015, Bu Jianguo, China’s ambassador to Cambodia, identified Cambodia as being located on China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road development plan, and affirmed China’s readiness to bring Sino-Cambodian economic cooperation under the “Belt and Road” development framework. In response, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An confirmed the economic opportunities to Cambodia offered by participation in the “Belt and Road,” especially those opportunities arising from the development of infrastructure for trade and investment (“China’s Belt,” 2015). As we shall see, China already has a significant presence in Cambodia’s recent economic development, and with China bringing Cambodia into its “Belt and Road” development framework, not only will China’s existing projects in Cambodia also be brought under the “Belt and Road,” further megaprojects in transportation and energy infrastructure development can also be expected.

The Deep History of the Chinese in Cambodia

Cambodia’s relations with China long predate this recent phase of active Chinese engagement in the country’s economic development. Indeed, Chinese influence can be seen as far back as the Cambodian empire of Angkor, whose monarchs and people Cambodians today identify as their powerful ancestors (Lim, 2013a, p. 57). Archaeologists and historians have learned that the culture of Angkor was hybrid and cosmopolitan, echoing the hybrid and cosmopolitan culture of today’s Phnom Penh. Apart from the indigenous culture of the ancient Khmer people, Angkor’s culture was also strongly influenced by the culture and traditions of the powerful empires of India and China (Heder, 2007, p. 290; Mabbett & Chandler, 1995, pp. 114-116; Lim, 2014, pp. 491-492). Chinese influence continued to be present in the post-Angkorean Khmer kingdoms, as the Khmer monarchs, recognizing that multiculturalism reflected their realm’s strength, allowed settlers from China and elsewhere to maintain their culture (Heder, 2007, p. 292). The Chinese community in Cambodia has since grown to a population of over 300,000 (Edwards, 2009, p. 174).

Cambodia and the People’s Republic of China officially established diplomatic relations in 1958 (“Chinese, Cambodian,” 2015). In the late 1960s, Sino-Cambodian relations declined following the Cultural Revolution in China, with Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk suspecting Chinese schools in Cambodia of seditiously spreading Mao Zedong Thought (Heder, 2007, p. 300). During the genocidal Democratic Kampuchea period, despite the presence of Chinese experts sent by Beijing to support the Khmer Rouge revolution, many Chinese families were murdered due to their pre-revolutionary capitalist activities, and the survivors quickly learned they had to pretend to be Khmer in order to survive (Edwards, 2012, pp. 127-130; Mertha, 2014, pp. 4-9). It was only in the 1990s, following the transition of Cambodia from socialism to capitalism that Cambodia’s Chinese dared to reassert their cultural identity (Edwards, 2009, p. 175; Lim, 2013b, pp. 62-63). This reassertion of identity has blossomed into confident displays of Chinese ethnic pride following the influx of Chinese investment into Cambodia (Heder, 2007, p. 309; Nyíri, 2012, p. 94). Echoing this increased economic engagement, Sino-Cambodian diplomatic relations were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010 (“Chinese, Cambodian,” 2015). While the increased visibility of Chinese cultural and economic activity in Cambodia has triggered Sinophobic sentiment among some Khmer, other Khmer, especially entrepreneurs seeking to do business with their Chinese counterparts, have sought to learn Mandarin, prompting the emergence of Chinese language schools in Phnom Penh (Heder, 2007, p. 309; Verver, 2012, pp. 31-32; Neou & Lovett, 2015).

For its part, China’s expanded engagement in Cambodia reflects changes in its economic development. After over three decades of double-digit growth, China has entered a “new normal” of single-digit growth (Lim, 2015c). The “Belt and Road” development framework is intended to stimulate economic growth in China and its partner economies in regions like South and Southeast Asia, Eurasia and Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, through the economic multiplier effects arising from the construction and subsequent use of infrastructure megaprojects in sectors like energy and transportation (Lim, 2015a; Lim, 2015b; Lim, 2015d; Lim, 2015e).

Military Cooperation

In a meeting in May 2012 between Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Tea Banh and his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, China reaffirmed its commitment to military cooperation with Cambodia by providing military capacity building valued at 17 million USD to Cambodia’s armed forces, including the construction of military schools and hospitals. In turn, Cambodia reaffirmed its adherence to Beijing’s One-China Policy as well as Cambodia’s support for China in international affairs including the South China Sea dispute (Sok & Lipes, 2012;“Cambodian, Chinese,” 2012). This relationship of mutual benefit was reaffirmed two years later in May 2014 when Tea Banh met with Xu Qiliang, the vice chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission. At this meeting, China’s military capacity building for Cambodia was expanded to include over 400 scholarships for Cambodian military officers to further their studies in China (Vong & Pye, 2014; “Cambodia, China,” 2014). As part of China’s military assistance, China has also provided Cambodia with equipment like military trucks and Harbin Z-9 helicopters (Vong, 2013a; Vong & Pye, 2014).

China’s military support for Cambodia is best reflected in the development of the Army Institute. In 1999 the Army Institute at Thlok Tasek was established with Chinese financial assistance, and since then China has continued to improve and expand the institute’s training facilities. In January 2013, for example, the Chinese-Cambodian Friendship Infantry Institution, an extension of the Army Institute, was established to provide training for Cambodian infantry personnel from Chinese military advisers. In 2009 the Army Institute began a 4-year training program for officer cadets identified for key leadership positions in the military hierarchy. The curriculum was designed by the Chinese defense ministry and Chinese military advisers guide the Cambodian instructors. The curriculum also includes semesters overseas in Chinese military academies. The Army Institute has now trained about half of Cambodia’s officer corps (Belford & Prak, 2015; Vong, 2013a; Vong, 2013b).

China’s military assistance to Cambodia does not exclude Cambodia from receiving military assistance from other donor countries. The US had traditionally been the largest provider of military aid to Cambodia, and such military aid from the US amounted to 18.2 million USD in 2012. Indeed, in the 1990s, General Hun Manet, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, received military training at the prestigious US military academy at West Point. US-Cambodian military cooperation has occasionally been affected by political controversies. Cambodia’s 2009 deportation of Uighur asylum seekers to China, for example, led the US to cancel a donation of 200 military vehicles. In 2013, US criticism of the Cambodian general elections led Cambodia to suspend military cooperation. Chinese military and economic assistance has allowed Cambodia to weather such downturns in US-Cambodia relations (Belford & Prak, 2015; Vong, 2013a).

Economic Cooperation

China is currently Cambodia’s largest aid donor. Between 1992 and 2014 China granted Cambodia 2.85 billion USD in concessional loans and other development aid, and in November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would supply Cambodia with overseas development assistance worth 500-700 million USD per annum (Vann & Gerin, 2014). The rehabilitation of old and the construction of new transportation infrastructure is a good example of Chinese development assistance in Cambodia. By 2011 China had constructed over 1,500 km of roads and bridges in the country, and the expansion of Cambodia’s transportation network hasn’t stopped (Jeldres, 2012, p. 91). National Road No. 41, which was opened in June 2015, is a good example. The two-lane road, which connects four of Cambodia’s southern provinces — Kampong Speu, Kandal, Takeo and Kampot — was constructed by China Road and Bridge Corporation at a cost of 46 million USD, which was paid for with a concessional loan from the Chinese government (“Cambodia inaugurates,” 2015).

Between 1992 and 2014 China granted Cambodia 2.85 billion USD in concessional loans and other development aid, and in November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China would supply Cambodia with overseas development assistance worth 500-700 million USD per annum.

Bilateral trade between China and Cambodia has also increased over the years, reaching 3.75 billion USD in 2014. The Cambodian government expects trade to increase to 4.21 billion USD in 2015 and 5 billion USD by 2017. China has also become Cambodia’s largest investor, with over 10 billion USD in cumulative investments. The bulk of the investments are in the agriculture, infrastructure, garments, and mining sectors. In May 2015, Hun Sen called on the Chinese government to further encourage Chinese firms to explore investment opportunities in Cambodia, especially in the Sihanoukville special economic zone (Chen, 2015; Ho & Kang, 2015; May, 2015; “Chinese, Cambodian,” 2015).

The increase in Chinese economic engagement in Cambodia has led to criticism of the Cambodian government. Cambodia’s Minister for Commerce Sun Chanthol has offered the following illustration to explain the Cambodian government’s willingness to accept Chinese aid and investment: “Let me put it this way. Let’s say, you have been starving, you’ve had nothing to eat for 30 days, or 30 years in the case of Cambodia, then comes this Chinese guy with a bowl of fried rice for you and says, ‘You are hungry; here is fried rice for you.’ And then, you hear another guy who says, ‘Don’t eat. Why do you eat fried rice from the Chinese?’ I would say to this guy, ‘You give me a Big Mac. If you give me an alternative — Big Mac versus fried rice — then I have a choice. But if you don’t provide me with the Big Mac when I’m starving and you tell me not to eat the rice, then I’m sorry, [I can’t do that].’ And that is why we go to China for funding. We want funding. That’s why we borrow from China, from Korea, from Japan, from ADB, from the World Bank. Money doesn’t have any color for us, as long as we can borrow and build our infrastructure and improve our country.” (Sun, 2015)

Fair Exchange?

Some of the criticisms arise from the perception that Cambodia is willing to override its international obligations in exchange for Chinese largesse. A good example is the aforementioned deportation back to China in 2009 of twenty Uighurs who had arrived in Cambodia to seek asylum from China, as this deportation violated Cambodia’s international obligations on non-refoulement under the UN Convention on Refugees, the UN Convention on Torture, and other international agreements that Cambodia is signatory to. The perception that this was a quid pro quo stems from the timing of China’s grant to Cambodia — just a day after the Uighurs were repatriated — of 1.2 billion USD in aid, an amount which exceeded the cumulative aid from China over the previous 17 years (Chun, 2012; Crothers, 2013; Jeldres, 2012, pp. 90-91; “Forcible return,” 2009; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1997).

Cambodia has offered support for China in other areas as well. In the South China Sea dispute, Cambodia has backed China’s call for bilateral negotiations over competing claims in the South China Sea, setting itself against Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ calls for negotiations in multilateral frameworks like ASEAN. In July 2012, Cambodia, using its position as chair of the 21st ASEAN summit, controversially blocked ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué on the South China Sea dispute. Most recently, in May 2015 Cambodia held a meeting with diplomats from 28 countries where it reiterated its position that ASEAN should not intervene in the South China Sea dispute (Neou & Lovett, 2015; Perlez, 2012; Prak, 2015). Cambodia has also acted in support of Beijing’s One-China policy. In 1997 Cambodia shut down the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Phnom Penh, and China reciprocated by donating 2.8 million USD worth of military vehicles to Cambodia. In 2003 Hun Sen reaffirmed that Taiwan would not be allowed to reopen its representative office in Cambodia (Thet & Barron, 2003; Strangio, 2014, p. 214). Most recently in June 2015, Cambodia acted in support of China’s anticorruption “Sky Net” campaign when it arrested and repatriated to China an economic fugitive who had been taken up residence in Kampong Speu province (“Chinese economic,” 2015).


This paper was originally published in Eurasia Review (Lim, 2015f). Since that time of writing, the US has sought to increase its influence in Cambodia at the expense of China. While the Cambodian government’s acceptance of such overtures will be limited by the US’ focus on the Hun Sen regime’s problematic human rights record, both the US and Cambodia remain keen to expand their economic relationship. The US is currently Cambodia’s largest trading partner, and on the occasion of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s January 2016 state visit to the kingdom, Hun Sen called on the US to further increase their bilateral trading volume (Nguon, 2016). Kerry failed during his visit to convince the Cambodian government to change its position on the South China Sea. However the Cambodian government agreed to cooperate with US efforts against the global terrorist threat of the Islamic State (Neou, 2016; Brunnstrom & Prak, 2016).

Despite its economic slowdown, China remains committed to expanding its economic engagement with Cambodia, and both the Chinese and Cambodian governments remain committed to achieving their 2017 target of 5 billion USD in Sino-Cambodian bilateral trade. China in particular seeks further cooperation in key sectors of the Cambodian economy like agriculture and infrastructure. For instance, China seeks increased imports of Cambodian agricultural commodities like rubber, sugar, pepper, and cassava powder. China will also contribute to Cambodia’s human resource development with its provision of scholarships for Cambodian university students (Pin, 2016; “China, Cambodia,” 2016).

In the tourism sector, the Cambodian government is seeking to increase the number of tourists from China. Chinese tourists to Cambodia numbered 629,786 from January to November 2015, a 24% increase from January to November 2014. The Cambodian government aims for this number to increase to 2 million by 2020 (Ngamsangchaikit, 2016). In the real estate sector, China’s economic slowdown has yet to seriously impact foreign investment, especially since South Korea is the largest foreign investor in this sector. However slowing sales and an increasing number of stagnant construction projects suggest the main impact of the Chinese slowdown is yet to come (Siv, 2016; Siv & Kotoski, 2016).


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