The Challenges Facing Cambodian Foreign Policy
By Veasna Var & Sovinda Po

The Challenges Facing Cambodian Foreign Policy

Jul. 20, 2017  |     |  1 comments

There is strategic competition between the great powers of the US and China. As Chinese power and influence continue to rise and as the US’ global and Asia policy in general and China policy in particular enter a highly uncertain and unpredictable phase under President Donald Trump, every country in Asia including Cambodia has been forced to recalibrate their strategies for protecting and promoting their economic and national security interests. Their strategic adjustments to meet the challenges they face will depend on their individual domestic political situations and national concerns. It will also depend on how they anticipate the policies of the two superpowers to evolve going forward. The current uncertain and unpredictable international environment places Cambodia’s foreign policy in the context of the challenging environment than it has already been in for decade, being caught between the two superpowers and between China and ASEAN.

Cambodia has recently become much closer to China in almost every respect, leading some scholars to label Cambodia-China relations as a client-patron relationship. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has described China as a “most trustworthy friend” while Xi Jinping reciprocated with his description of Hun Sen as the “ironclad friend.” Such a phenomenon is not coincidental but rather has been brought about by actions. Since 1992, approximately USS 3 billion in Chinese congressional loans and aid has been offered to Cambodia, positioning China to be the largest development assistance provider and the biggest investor in the kingdom. Chinese investments have covered almost all lucrative and backbone sectors in Cambodia. For example, Chinese companies have invested in the garment and textile sector, accounting for 80 percent of total exports and employing about half a million Cambodians. In addition, China is also building the USD 800 million Lower Sesan 2 dam project. Some scholars believe that Cambodia’s excessive dependence on China has placed Cambodia’s foreign policy under China’s influence. As Evelyn Goh points out:

“Downstream states do not feel that they are in a position to challenge China directly, partly because of its relative power, but also because of growing Chinese influence in the region. For example, increasing Chinese aid and investment in Cambodia in recent years — especially in the form of infrastructural investment in roads, bridges, sewerage systems, the Sambor hydropower station, and the Senate and National Assembly buildings — obliges Phnom Penh to tread carefully when expressing concerns about the impacts it might suffer from Lancang Jiang developments.”

This influence, while serving China’s national interests, has provided an opportunity for Cambodia to enjoy a “free ride” on the efforts of the international community, in particular the US, to get Cambodia on the right track for democracy, good governance, and human rights. According to Carlyle Thayer, “Cambodian reliance on China for development assistance will mean that CPP officials will not have to fear external pressures to act on corruption.”1 Moreover, as Sophal Ear argues, “When Cambodia falls under pressure from international bodies to reform its human rights abuses, corruption, oppression of its people, or misuse of power, it turns to China for financial support.”2 For instance, when the World Bank suspended its financial support in response to the mass forced eviction of villagers from the Boueng Kak Lake development area in Phnom Penh, Cambodia simply turned to China for financial support.3

Since 2012, the South China Sea has re-emerged as the most significant and challenging foreign policy dilemma for Cambodia. As a non-claimant state, the Sea is not of direct concern for Cambodia, but it holds great relevance to Cambodia as a member of ASEAN. Cambodia has been accused of siding with China at the expense of ASEAN and therefore, the South China Sea disputes are damaging the unity of ASEAN. This accusation is primarily based on the fact that China has become Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and economic benefactor. The giant is also the biggest military assistance provider to Cambodia. Thus, it has led some analysts and commentators to portray Cambodia as a Chinese ‘client state.

The level of Chinese influence was evident the second time Cambodia held the ASEAN Chairmanship. Cambodia supported China’s “core interests” on South China Sea disputes which resulted in ASEAN’s failure to produce a Joint Communiqué following its 45th Annual Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. Cambodia refused to play the customary role of seeking agreement among the ten ASEAN members, and this resulted in the first time in the history of ASEAN there was no communiqué. As a result, Cambodia was criticized by its closest ally, Vietnam, other ASEAN members, and the international community for lacking an independent foreign policy. The failure seemed to disgrace Prime Minister Hun Sen’s commitment to play a neutral leadership role in setting regional issues: “Cambodia would fulfil its leadership role responsibly and would work to neutrally moderate and mediate all regional and international issues.”

Cambodia, however, insists the failure to issue the communiqué was caused not by intransigence on its part nor for any lack of effort to find common ground among all parties concerned. Responding to the criticism, the Cambodian government claimed that “Cambodia has, again and again, become a victim of the South China Sea issue because of unjust accusations.” Prime Minister Hun Sen asserted that the failure of the bloc to have a unified communiqué, also known as the “Phnom Penh Fiasco,” was not due to Cambodia but rather the claimant states, referring to pressure from the Philippines and Vietnam to incorporate their strong wording in the joint communiqué. He also blamed some ASEAN claimant states for “trying to drag Cambodia into the dispute,” stating that “they have a dispute, but they get Cambodia to be responsible.”

In early September 2016, the kingdom faced a similar challenge at the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos, when Cambodia was again portrayed as a “thorn” in the regional bloc. The critics assailed China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea and the Chinese rejection of The Hague ruling, and connected these to the Chinese influence on Cambodia. Such claims are extant because during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cambodia last year, several deals seen as Chinese carrots to reward Cambodia for its compliance were offered. In addition, President Xi offered USD  148 million in aid for economic cooperation, canceled USD 89 million of Cambodia’s debt, and pledged an additional USD 14 million in military aid.

As a small state, Cambodia should consider wisely adopting the “hedging strategy.”

Moreover, Cambodia has acted to underpin the one-China policy soon after receiving these loans and aid. As noted in South China Morning Post, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated: “We should not do anything that affects China’s sovereignty”. To reinforce his statement, Hun Sen called for the complete ban of the Taiwanese flag from being hoisted in the kingdom. While countries across the globe have acknowledged the one-China policy, Cambodia has been extra careful to do so. Cambodia’s “soft power” may be seen to erode along these fault lines.

Cambodia’s bilateral relations with the US have been getting worse. The US has repeatedly lectured Cambodia on its human right abuses, political repression, and its backward democracy, frustrating long-serving incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen to the extent that he had to resist. In response, Cambodia under Hun Sen has recently released a lengthy report, titled “To Tell the Truth”, to describe the allegations of abuses and repression as a campaign of misinformation spread by a conspiracy of foreign powers led by the United States: “Cambodia has been submerged, month after month, year after year, by reports from opposition media, biased NGOs and misinformed institutions, which twisted the historical facts and events in an attempt to portray a negative image of Cambodia and to lay the blame on the government.”

Moreover, to fight back against the US accusations, Cambodia has decided to delay the Angkor Sentinel, a joint military exercise with the US, and to end the Seabees. The cancellation of the Seabees, known as the US Navy Mobile Construction Battalion, means that the 20 planned projects like building schools and hospitals have put to an end. The reason Cambodia dares to challenge the US is because Cambodia has the support of China. Another factor contributing to the deteriorating bilateral relations was when Cambodia requested the US to cancel its USD 500 million debt because this debt is viewed by the Cambodian government as odious debt, but the US has refused to do so.

Cambodia currently is seen as moving into a challenging foreign policy trajectory and needs to redesign its foreign policy. Cambodia’s current foreign policy has been seen as a “soft alignment” or “bandwagoning for profits,” and the problem with these approaches is that Cambodia has limited room to maneuver. As a small state, Cambodia should consider wisely adopting the “hedging strategy.” According to Evelyn Goh, the “hedging” approach is a set of strategies aimed at avoiding (or planning for contingencies in) a situation in which states cannot decide upon more straightforward alternatives such as balancing, bandwagoning, or neutrality, and instead cultivate a middle position that forestalls or avoids having to choose one side [or a straightforward policy stance] at the obvious expense of another. This approach will enable Cambodia to remain friends with all relevant stakeholders. With reference to Cambodia’s close relations with China, during her visit to Cambodia in November 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised the Cambodian people during a public meeting on the independence of the Cambodian’s foreign policy to not depend only on China: “you don’t want to get too dependent on any one country.”

In addition, there are problems when it comes to Chinese aid, loans, and investment. First, Cambodia must be aware that China’s influence in the country will grow as its loans increase. The problem with the Chinese loans is that if Cambodia is not able to pay off the debt, state property is likely to be converted into equity, lending the rights to China to take charge. This can be seen in the case of Sri Lanka. Its Hambantota and Columbo ports have been converted into equity as a payment to the USD 8 billion in Chinese loans and Chinese firms have taken control of these ports. Second, when it comes to Chinese aid, Cambodia should be more cautious. The reason is that while receiving more aid, Cambodia has to agree to Chinese requests such as access to the natural resources and investments that are detrimental to the environment. Chinese investment in the construction of a number of dams on the upper Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) and on the Lower Mekong such as in Cambodia will cause considerable negative environmental effects on millions of people who depend on the water for drinking, irrigation, fishing, and the sediments that naturally fertilize the land — in short for their food, sanitation, water and, in many instances, their income. Downstream countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam will be the worst affected as a result of dam construction.

Cambodia’s core national interests include maintaining sovereignty and territorial integrity, security and political stability, as well as sustaining economic development, reducing poverty and image-building. Cambodia’s long-term interests will be best served through engaging in regional initiatives such as ASEAN and with other major powers such as China and the US simultaneously and harmonizing its relations with all stakeholders. Cambodia should contribute to strengthening ASEAN to achieve its centrality because a strong and cohesive ASEAN is vital for a rule-based regional order and for Cambodia’s future autonomy and prosperity.

When it comes to the South China Sea dispute, Cambodia should play a leading role in pushing for the finalization of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and once finalized, Cambodia, which has been accused of being a Chinese puppet, will be able to present itself as a neutral entity. To achieve this end, it is necessary for Cambodia to prove to the other ASEAN member states and the international community that Cambodia’s foreign policy with China does not come at the expense of ASEAN unity.


1. Thayer, C. (2009). Cambodia: The Cambodia People’s Party consolidates power. In Southeast Asian Affairs, ed. Daljit Singh. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, p. 97.

2. Ear, S. (3013). Aid Dependent in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 29-30.

3. Ciorciari, J. (2013). China and Cambodia: Patron and client? International Policy Center Working Paper no. 121, p. 7.

1 Comments To This Article

  • JohnLowrie

    on Jul 21, 2017 at 09:14 AM - Reply


    This is a good analysis. One point is missing as well as one critical factor in understanding Cambodia Government policy-making. The missing point is that already China is recouping some of its outlay, as well as increasing its portfolio and holdings in Cambodia, by the very many large construction projects by Chinese companies all around but especially in Phnom Penh. You see it in the new skyline going up with immense labels of the Chinese state-owned builders. The missing factor is that one thing denotes this Cambodian Government more than anything else. It does not and never has made its decisions on the basis of long-term thinking. It is driven purely by short-term gain, even whims and paranoiac reactions - seldom reflection and collective deliberation.

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