Cambodia has suffered from the widespread public perception both at home and abroad of being a vassal or client state of China. Such wrong perception was driven by some Western media and exacerbated by the opposition leaders.
The US and some European countries tend to believe that Cambodia has lost its sovereignty to China. And the economic and diplomatic pressures and punishment measures exercised by the West generally reflect their concern over the dominant influence of China on Cambodia.
The decision to postpone the annual joint military exercise called Angkor Sentinel with the US was the trigger of strategic distrust between Cambodia and the US. The move was perceived by the US that Cambodia lost balance and completely shifted to China.
The imposition of the safe guards on rice has made Cambodian rice exports to EU more expensive by an average of $200 per ton. Another inspection team from the EU will be arriving soon to continue their evaluation on Cambodia with regards to whether to revoke the Everything but Arms (EBA) status from Cambodia.
In addition, the US legislators have proposed Cambodian Trade Act of 2019 bill to re-examine Cambodia’s eligibility to access the preferential trade treatment granted under the General System of Preferences (GSP).
These measures, as understood by some Cambodian leaders, aim to send a clear signal that Cambodia will suffer from losing its balance and allowing China to dominate its domestic politics and foreign policy. In other words, Cambodia must pay the cost for being too close to China. It is a geopolitical issue rather than human rights or democracy issue.
The rumors that China is planning to build military bases in Cambodia were rejected by both the Cambodian and Chinese leaders. At the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe clarified that there was no such thing as military base in Cambodia.
The facts on the ground show that Chinese presence in Cambodia is too much and too fast. Due to the lack of regulation and weak law enforcement, Cambodia is vulnerable to “irresponsible” Chinese investors.
Some bad practices of Chinese companies have been widely shared on social media, which has led to increasing anti-China sentiment across the country.
China is Cambodia’s main economic partner, especially in infrastructure development.
An estimated 80 percent of power produced in Cambodia comes from projects undertaken by Chinese companies, either state – owned or government-linked companies.
According to the recent Facebook post by the Chinese embassy, China has built 31 highways and eight bridges for Cambodia with a total highway length of 3,000 kilometres.
Pew Research Center has said in one of its reports that China’s growing economic might is generally seen as a good thing in most of the countries surveyed. However, there are social and environmental risks attached unless the principles of inclusiveness, transparency and accountability are taken into account.
Over-dependence on China is a risk for Cambodia, geopolitically. Therefore, the Cambodian government is thriving to diversify its economic and strategic partners.
The key challenge for Cambodia to outreach to the West is the lack of mutual trust. The economic and diplomatic pressures on Cambodia are doomed to fail- it will not change pollical dynamics in Cambodia but instead force Cambodia to align closer with China for survival.
Since early this year, Cambodia has sent positive signal to the West that it is willing to restore political trust and normalize the relationships that they enjoyed before 2017. Now it depends on how the West respond to this good will from Cambodia.
Mutual consultation and mutual respect are critical to trust building. Cambodia and the US and the EU should find common grounds for constructive bilateral dialogues. The West needs to understand that Cambodia needs space and options for survival and development.
Cambodia neither has interest or intention to become a vassal or client state of any major power nor wish to be bullied or coerced by any country.
Cambodia embraces all friends from East to West, while strengthening its national resilience and self-reliance. Cambodia has benefitted from reforms and opening up, and therefore continues to support open, inclusive and rules-based multilateral system.
Foreign policy starts from home. To survive and thrive, Cambodia must have robust political, economic and social reforms, invest more education and technology, and strengthen public-private partnership for infrastructure development.