Cambodia and China commemorate their 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties this year amid rising domestic political uncertainties in Cambodia and fast-changing geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific.
President Xi Jinping said last year that “both sides should take the commemoration of the 60th anniversary as an opportunity to promote bilateral relations for steady, forward-looking and better development”.
Prime Minister Hun Sen responded: “The Cambodian side is willing to, together with the Chinese side, consolidate traditional friendship, so as to promote bilateral comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership for greater development.”
Cambodia, the natural ally of China, views the evolving regional order as leading towards a Sino-centric order in which China will take a leadership role in regional affairs.
Cambodia’s foreign policy has been shaped by its worldview, which is the world is becoming a multipolar world in which China is one of the global powers.
In his New Year speech, President Xi reaffirmed China’s commitment to actively contribute to solving global issues, with the aim to become “a builder of world peace, contributor of global development and keeper of international order”.
“As a responsible major country, China has something to say,” Mr Xi said.
In Asia, China will be a dominant major power. In the eyes of the Cambodian ruling elites, China will significantly shape the global and regional order based on China’s evolving rules and values.
Cambodia regards China as the most important strategic and economic partner, while China regards Cambodia as the most reliable friend.
The special personal friendship cultivated by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Premier Zhou Enlai in the late 1950s is the bedrock of the bilateral ties. The personal relationship between the leaders of the two countries has been nurtured from generation to generation.
China’s support is critical to realising Cambodia’s development vision of becoming a middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050. Infrastructure development and national and regional connectivity projects are the key areas of bilateral cooperation.
The increasing flow of Chinese investment capital and tourists has significantly contributed to socio-economic development and poverty reduction in Cambodia.
Historically, Cambodia approached extra-regional powers to counterbalance against the existential threats posed by the two big immediate neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam.
After becoming an Asean member in 1999, Cambodia has become more confident in regional integration and community building. The non-interference principle and consensus-based decision-making mode of Asean are the key international relation norms that Cambodia can rely on to protect its sovereignty.
Although threat perception has gradually diminished, Cambodia maintains the view that her immediate neighbours are the main security and sovereignty threats. Territorial disputes between Cambodia and its neighbours remain the key security concerns.
The strategic and political trust that Cambodia has earned from China serves as a foundation of forging closer ties between the two countries. China is now the core back-up of Cambodia amid looming pressures, including soft sanctions from the US and its allies.
The Cambodian government regards China as the main source of regime legitimisation. China’s development aid and investments have significantly contributed to the output and performance legitimacy of the government.
Sok Chenda, the Secretary-General of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, said in November last year that “Chinese investors have actively contributed to boosting socio-economic development in Cambodia”.
“I’m confident that with the active participation from Chinese investors, all cooperation between Cambodia and China under the Belt and Road Initiative will be successful,” he added.
Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), initiated by China in 2015, is another key instrument in connecting and integrating the Mekong region.
In December last year, Cambodia received more than $7 million under the LMC Special Fund to implement 16 projects, including capacity building and research projects.
Speaking at the launching of the National Secretariat of Cambodia for the LMC in October last year, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said the LMC “politically binds the destiny of six riparian countries that share geographically a sub-region located along the Mekong River”.
On the South China Sea issue, Cambodia shares a similar position with China that a bilateral mechanism is the most effective way in resolving the differences and disputes, and an Asean-China dialogue mechanism is a tool to build mutual understanding and trust.
The Code of Conduct (COC) is not an instrument to resolve conflicts and disputes, but is an instrument to build confidence and promote preventive diplomacy.
Opportunities, however, do not come without costs and challenges. Cambodia’s international image and role has been adversely affected due to its position on the South China Sea, which is in line with that of China.
The structural challenge that Cambodia may need to overcome is power asymmetry. Economic overdependence on China poses certain constraints on Cambodia’s foreign policy options.
Chinese economic presence may cause certain public discontent if the investment and infrastructure development projects do not truly meet the development needs of the local people.
Some local communities have raised concerns with regard to the quality of Chinese investments, particularly with regards to the issues of resettlement and compensation, environmental degradation and land grabbing.
Chheang Vannarith is an Associate Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.