China’s Influence in Cambodia

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As China becomes richer and more powerful, it is expanding its interest and involvement in most parts of the globe, and Cambodia in particular.
 
Cambodia has undeniably come under China’s economic and political influence and has become one of China’s closest international partners and diplomatic allies.
 
China and Cambodia reached agreement on a Comprehensive Partnership for Cooperation deal in April 2006 and raised this to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation status in 2010, marked as milestones of deep and comprehensive cooperation.
 
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently described China as a “most trustworthy friend” for Cambodia. During an official visit by King Norodom Sihamoni to Beijing in early June, Chinese President Xi Jinping described Cambodia as a “good neighbor, like a brother” and “a good friend with sincerity.”  
 
China has become Cambodia’s largest development aid giver and provider of foreign investment. As a major source of development assistance, China has disbursed more than $200 million annually since 1992 and has provided about $3 billion in concessional loans and grants to Cambodia.
 
Also, between 1994 and 2013, Chinese investment in Cambodia was about $10 billion, focused mainly on agriculture, mining, infrastructure projects, hydro-power dams and garment production.
 
In addition to development aid, China has also provided a considerable amount of military assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed Force’s (RCAF) development. In recent years, China significantly increased military cooperation with the RCAF by providing loans and military equipment including trucks, helicopters and aircraft, built military training and medical facilities and donated uniforms to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
 
But is China’s increasingly growing relationship with Cambodia an overall positive or negative one? From the perspective of some foreign observers and Cambodian citizens, China’s approach to development cooperation clearly presents opportunities, but also entails some risks for Cambodia’s current and future foreign and development strategic trajectory.
 
Overall, Chinese engagement has generated some significant benefits for Cambodia, including development of much-needed physical infrastructure – roads, bridges, railways dams etc – and massive investment that has created thousands of jobs in industry, construction, mining and other sectors.
 
For example, Chinese investment in the textile industry has enabled tens of thousands of Cambodians to work and make money, even though most of them are unskilled. Chinese development aid in infrastructure has played an important role in Cambodia’s national rehabilitation.
 
With about 10 bridges and more than 2,000 kilometers of road built by Chinese development aid, this infrastructure has significantly improved access to markets, especially for farmers. China’s involvement in Cambodia has contributed in the garment and textile sector – with more than 3,000 companies, which are the backbone of Cambodian exports, accounting for 80 percent of all exports and employing about half a million workers, contributing 2 percent of Cambodia’s GDP since 1995.
 
Despite Cambodia having received a significant amount of Chinese aid, the question must be asked: can such aid help Cambodia achieve the long-term core national interest development goals it adopted since the first UN-sponsored election in 1993?  
 
China’s activities in Cambodia are not without controversy. Some critics view China’s hegemony in Cambodia as for its own wider strategic interests in Cambodia. Chinese development aid and investment have significant impacts on Cambodia’s social, political and environmental arenas.  
 
Chinese aid and investment, they argue, has made corruption worse, led to a failure to achieve good governance and human rights and resulted in over-exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources.
 
Although China is one of the key development players in Cambodia, its involvement has not been appreciated by Cambodia’s general public because China’s strategic interests focus on the government, political parties and political elites and neglect to focus on benefits for the average Cambodian.
 
It may also be considered to be potentially detrimental to ordinary people, the farmers and the workers, with the potential to result in unchecked oppression, leading to social unrest and violence, as can be seen today.
 
Some observers are concerned about the environmental effects and the lack of transparency as a result of some Chinese-backed infrastructure, including dams and development projects. For example, the controversial Boeung Kak lake development in central Phnom Penh, which rights groups claim has led to the illegal eviction of about 4,000 families, and the massive gambling and tourist resort development under construction in Botum Sakor National Park in the country’s southwest.
 
Compounding these concerns are reports of mistreatment of Cambodian workers on Chinese construction sites.
 
While Chinese assistance may boost Cambodia’s economic development to a certain extent and enable Cambodia to maintain sovereignty and pursue independent foreign policy on the international stage, Cambodia’s current foreign policy is seen to partly serve China’s political and diplomatic interests in the region and the world.
 
This was obvious when Cambodia expressed strong objections to a joint statement to condemn China for building military installations in the contentious areas in the South China Sea. Also, in his speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen fiercely stated that Cambodia’s stance was not to support any joint statement in support of the verdict of the court.
 
This dynamic was similar to when Cambodia used its 2012 chairmanship of Asean to back China in the South China Sea dispute, an action with the potential to seriously affect Asean’s unity and other major powers such as the US, EU, Japan and South Korea, countries that have provided substantial development assistance to Cambodia.
 
Cambodia’s recent refusal to listen to a strong appeal from the international community, including the US, EU and the UN, over its deteriorating domestic issues highlighted Cambodia’s over-dependence on China. This move was considered a risky strategy which may lead to Cambodia being abandoned by the international community because the strategy sharply contradicts the country’s national development interests.
 
Arguably, this dynamic has fundamentally undermined long-standing international efforts to promote regional peace and prosperity and democracy in Cambodia.   
 
It is true that the country’s national development goals – for Cambodia to reach upper-middle income country status by 2030 and high income status by 2050 – would be unlikely to become a reality without foreign assistance from diverse aid providers and integrating into the international community.
 
It reminded us that during her visit to Cambodia in 2010, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Cambodians to seek good multilateral-cooperation beyond China. She argued that “it is smart for Cambodia to be friends with many countries and to look for opportunities to cooperate with many countries.”
 
In order to attain its strategic economic development goals, Cambodia will need to seek a diversified foreign policy which means strengthening cooperation with all countries. The country must continue to see the value in engaging regional entities.
 
Cambodia’s best long-term interests lie in regional initiatives, Asean, Mekong regional development and working to harmonize foreign relations as far as possible with countries in the region to secure its own future.
 
Veasna Var is a PhD Candidate in Political and International Studies, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

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