Many commentators and analysts believe that Cambodia is a proxy state of China. Others have argued that Cambodia is leaning heavily towards China at the expense of its relations with the West and countries in Southeast Asia.
Despite these perceptions, Cambodia’s foreign policy can be seen in another way. Four key pillars such as multilateralism, economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and neutrality can explain Cambodia’s foreign policy approach.
Considering these dimensions, it is reasonable to argue that Cambodia is not China’s proxy. The following paragraphs attempt to illuminate this alternative argument.
First, Cambodia’s foreign policy is guided by multilateralism – a process of organising relations between groups of three or more states. As a small state, Cambodia lacks the capacity to mitigate risks on its own. It needs to proactively engage other countries to advance a multilateral system and strengthen the collective power of small states.
In this respect, Cambodia’s efforts to promote multilateralism are in line with its foreign policy motto that says “reforming at home and making friends abroad based on the spirit of independence”. Cambodia supports multilateralism and seeks to strengthen and promote rules-based international order to stay relevant in the regional and international arena.
Second, even though Cambodia appears to lean towards China, it does not fully bandwagon with Beijing. Instead, while embracing the world’s second largest economy for economic and security gains, Cambodia strives to forge and maintain good relations with other partners, even with China’s competitors such as Japan, the United States, and Vietnam. Cambodia has made great efforts to conclude free-trade deals with not only China, but also South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the Eurasian Economic Union. More noticeably, Cambodia has finalised its free -trade deal with China and is negotiating trade deals with South Korea.
Third, Cambodia’s foreign policy is guided by cultural diplomacy. The country has tried to boost its cultural identity worldwide as evidenced by a number of culture-enhancing efforts. For example, through cultural diplomacy, it has succeeded in inscribing three cultural properties in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Angkor Archaeological Park was inscribed in 1992. The Temple of Preah Vihear was listed in 2008 and the Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk, Archaeological Site of Ancient Ishanapura, was inscribed in 2017. There are eight other cultural sites placed on the tentative list of properties considered to be cultural and/or natural heritage of outstanding universal value.
Cambodia has also stepped up its cultural diplomacy by hosting the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in 2019 in Siem Reap. The country was chosen as a host by the International Conference of Asia Political Parties because it has experience in protecting, restoring, and preserving historical temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear Temple.
Fourth, Cambodia’s foreign policy is grounded in the principles of neutrality. The country has done its best to remain neutral as much as it can be throughout its modern history. In 2012, when Cambodia was the Asean chair, the country received a lot of criticism. Cambodia was dubbed as a Chinese client state and was perceived to align closely with China at the expense of the Asean unity and its relations with Asean countries.
These propositions seemed logical, but they seemed to overlook Cambodia’s neutral stance. Cambodia is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea disputes. It supports bilateral mechanisms that aim to resolve differences between each Asean claimant state and China. If Cambodia took part in the decision to condemn China for its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, it would mean that Cambodia was biased and did not uphold the principles of neutrality enshrined in its foreign policy.
Moreover, if Cambodia joined the claimant states to criticise China officially, it would mean that Cambodia brought Asean into direct conflict with China. This scenario would not bring about any benefits to the Asean-China relations as well as bilateral relations between China and each Asean state. Instead, it would spell disaster for the bilateral and multilateral ties between the two parties.
Cambodia has tried to navigate the US-China rivalry, although this is a highly challenging task. While backing China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Cambodia has shown friendly gestures towards the US as well. For recent examples, Cambodia has allowed the US to resume the Missing in Action (MIA) programme to search for remains of US soldiers missing during the Vietnam War. Cambodia has also held talks with the US to consider the resumption of their military exercise, known as Angkor Sentinel, which was abruptly halted in 2017.
In February, Cambodia welcomed MS Westerdam cruise ship to dock in Sihanoukville after it was turned away by five countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and Guam. It is worth noting that there were more than 2,200 tourists and crew members on board MS Westerdam. Among them, more than 600 (27 percent) were US citizens.
Notably, US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Hun Sen have, through letter exchanges, expressed their willingness to restore and enhance their relations. Even though it is early to judge whether their relations will be lifted to new heights, recent positive developments suggest that Cambodia-US ties have improved.
Thus, Cambodia has not excluded the US and other countries in its foreign policy decisions. The primary aim of Cambodia’s foreign policy is to ensure good bilateral and multilateral ties. Despite its recent strained relations with the US over divergent historical interpretations and issues related to human rights and democratic development, Cambodia is working to mend and improve its relationship with its Western partner.
Overall, although Cambodia closely aligns with China, it does not distance itself from other partners, including China’s competitors. As a small state, it is extremely difficult for Cambodia to be neutral. However, Cambodia was a neutral state in the past, is neutral now and appears to be willing to maintain its neutrality in the future.
Kimkong Heng is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland in Australia and a visiting senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. The views expressed are his own