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A balanced foreign policy is easier said than done

Seun Sam / Share:

Politics in Cambodia is defined within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the King serves as the head of state, and the prime minister is the head of government. Cambodia has a very long history that is deeply connected to India and China. Cambodia has a great history but experienced one of the most tragic period as the country went through many civil wars and was invaded by neighboring countries. Cambodia has been colonized one or another by  France, Japan, and by the cruel Khmer Rouge regime.  Invasions and   wars and  killed many Cambodian citizens, especially scholars.

After the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia started to walk on the difficult path with little in her hands. Although what Cambodia had in her hands was not what Cambodia wanted for its citizens, it had to hold tightly to  these things to continue its hard journey with a  brilliant and bright hope and future in mind.

The Khmer Rouge regime had decimated almost everything in the country. Many Cambodians were killed and some intellectuals fled abroad and decided to live overseas to enjoy peace and prosperity on the lands which were not their motherland.

There were very few Cambodian scholars who could professionally or expertly  talk about Cambodia to inform the world about Cambodia’s situation after the Khmer Rouge Regime. According to Serge Thion, author of Watching Cambodia “explaining Cambodia is typically a foreigner’s  business”, which means Cambodians are not qualified or not trustful to talk about the situation of their own country. This raises the question: Why?

There are documents about Cambodia written by foreign scholars and former foreign ambassadors who had served in Cambodia. Most of the documents and thesis written by foreign scholars and historians became the most important and at times, the only references for Cambodian scholars and students who wanted to understand their own history.

Maybe because the documents were written in English or French, foreign scholars appeared to be more knowledgeable than Cambodian people and scholars whenever there was a discussion about Cambodia anywhere in the world.  Cambodian students or Cambodian journalists seemed proud to mention names of foreign scholars in their articles or in their broadcasts.

It is almost the habit of Cambodian people to be proud of other nations much more than their own. Those who held a foreign degree felt that they received a good quality education than those who studied inside Cambodia, although their thesis and dissertation may be about  about Cambodia’s situation and  politics.

It is very complicated to describe Cambodia in a short time, and sometimes they need to study the culture and the sad history of the country before they can really understand the real situation of Cambodia. After the Khmer Rouge Regime, Cambodia started to walk when they had no choice.

There are many articles written by foreign scholars to inform Cambodia about the future relations of Cambodia-US under  president-elect Joe Biden. Most foreign scholars and Cambodian NGO leaders want the president-elect to take strong action against the Cambodian Government since they believed that the government abuses human rights and freedom of expression in Cambodia.

At the beginning of 2020, the EU had withdrawn 20% of their EBA privilege from  Cambodia, and they warned that more will be  withdrawn if the Government did not restore human rights and political freedom. The US has also mentioned the importance of their Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) to Cambodian’s high-ranking officials.

Moreover, some of the regional countries also accused Cambodia of being biased toward China. The EU countries mentioned human rights in Cambodia and the US frequently in the same breadth as the phantom Chinese military bases in Cambodia, either in Koh Kong and or  Sihanoukville. However, China supports Cambodia through all these situations. The Chinese government always respected the  internal issues of Cambodia.

In this regard, the Royal Government of Cambodia is happy to have support from the Chinese Government as well as  investors.  Investments from China are very important for the development of Cambodia. Chinese investors invested in big infrastructure projects  in Cambodia such as roads, buildings, and bridges. According to the United Nations data, in 2018, Cambodia exported about $1.3 billion worth of goods to China, while its imports from China were worth $6.1 billion.

According to the US Trade Number, Cambodia’s total trade with the United States was $765.93 million in September, a change of 18.43 percent from the same month a year ago. The change in exports was -40.99 percent and the change in imports was 18.79 percent. Cambodia ranked No. 44 among U.S. trade partners in September. It had ranked No. 52 for the same month last year.

The competition between the US and China gives Cambodia a big headache, and Cambodia needs to carefully perform to keep their firm stance between the two big powerful countries.

Many Cambodian and foreign scholars recommend that  the Royal Government of Cambodia should  balance its foreign policies with all countries, not only between China and the US but also ASEAN countries.   Balanced foreign policy for Cambodia, that sentence is very easy to state in the media but very hard to implement since every country is always biased for the benefits of their own country.

However, the Royal Government of Cambodia should not forget that the US and EU are the biggest markets for Cambodia to sell their products, not China. But China has been a very honest friend who supports Cambodia under all situations.


Dr. Seun Sam is a researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. All views in this article are his own.

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