Cambodia is in a strategically challenging position. It has close relations with two rival countries – Vietnam and China. In recent years, Cambodia has found itself in a difficult situation caused by the dispute between China and Vietnam over the South China Sea issues and the challenges concerning the Mekong River. These geopolitical challenges have left little room for Cambodia to maneuver its foreign policy. Considering the ongoing strategic rivalry between Beijing and Hanoi, Phnom Penh has to carefully manage its foreign relations to balance between these two countries, both of which are its close friends. Failing to walk the diplomatic and geopolitical tightrope effectively poses significant economic and security risks for Cambodia.
The current Cambodian government has good relations with both China and Vietnam since the 1990s, so choosing any side would affect relations with the other. Currently, Sino-Cambodian relations have reached new heights as Cambodia is one of China’s key allies in the Southeast Asian region. China has provided a lot of support to Cambodia, particularly in terms of economic and military support. The relationship is highly reciprocal. In return of the Chinese support, Cambodia has, on occasion, acted in favor of China’s strategic interests. It confidently leans toward China, sparking concerns among countries in Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, and major powers such as the United States and Japan. The concern is, however, particularly significant for Vietnam, who is both Cambodia’s close ally and China’s long-time rival. As Cambodia is increasingly aligning itself with China, it complicates its relations with Vietnam. The need to maintain good relations with both China and Vietnam creates a distinctive challenge confronting Cambodia’s foreign policy options.
Cambodia’s relations with China and Vietnam in retrospect
A brief examination of history might be vital to understand Cambodia’s present foreign policy challenges vis-à-vis its relations with China and Vietnam. In 1978, about 100,000 Vietnamese troops accompanied by 20,000 Khmer Rouge defectors invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese offensive against Phnom Penh in 1978 was seen by some as illegal invasion, while at the same time the Vietnamese military intervention was also seen as liberation. From 1979 to 1990, the Vietnam-installed Cambodian government was not recognized as a legitimate government by China and the United States. While the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was still recognized as the legitimate Cambodian government and received substantial amount of ammunition and arms support from China and the US despite losing control of the country and was hiding along the Cambodian-Thai border. For instance, in 1990, the Khmer Rouge received 24 Chinese T-59 tanks and other military supports delivered through the Thai border. China’s support of the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s was largely motivated by strategic interests. It launched an offensive against Vietnam in 1979 as a punishment for the latter’s invasion of Cambodia.
In 1989, the Vietnamese troops were ultimately withdrawn from Cambodia due to international pressure. Later, the United Nation Transnational Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was created after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991. China has since then started to abandon the Khmer Rouge and looked for alternative options to engage the newly elected Cambodian government. It first engaged royalist party FUNCINPEC (the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia) and then the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). In 1996, China officially invited CPP leaders for a visit and both parties had official meetings several times.
Meanwhile, Cambodia still maintains strong relations with Vietnam. It helped to assist Phnom Penh in becoming a member of ASEAN in 1999. Vietnam is also Cambodia’s important trading partner even though the Cambodia-Vietnam trade volume is relatively low compared to that between Cambodia and China which was worth USD 9 billion in 2019. The trade volume between Cambodia and Vietnam was USD 372 million in 2001 and increased to USD 3.37 billion in 2015.
Several leaders of the Cambodian government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have a special connection with communist leaders in Vietnam. For example, Hun Sen has frequently visited Hanoi. In 2018, alongside with other CPP top leaders, he visited Hanoi and paid respect to Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang’s funeral. In 2019, Hun Sen paid a state visit to Vietnam and signed a Memorandum of Understanding in order to further strengthen relations between the two countries. Moreover, the deep relations between Cambodia and Vietnam can be understood through the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monuments which have been built in almost all provinces in Cambodia to commemorate the victory over the Khmer Rouge and the strong bonds between Cambodia and Vietnam. Recently, Cambodian and Vietnam inked an agreement on military cooperation, which aims to boost military ties and assistance between the two countries for the period of five years from 2020 to 2025.
China’s increasing influence in Cambodia
The bilateral relations between Cambodia and China were strongly developed in 1997 when the CPP won a military coup d’état over FUNCINPEC, paving the way for it to win national elections in the following year. When the then CPP-led government was isolated and faced aid suspension from the international community, especially Western governments, China stepped up its support by providing foreign assistance in the form of weaponry worth of $2.8 million. In 1997, China provided around $6 million in aid. The economic ties between the two countries were bolstered as Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) increased from US $36 million in 1996 to US $113 million in 1997. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen used to say in the late 1980s that “China is the root of all that is evil in Cambodia”, China is now Cambodia’s best friend.
There used to be mistrust toward China among the CPP leadership. However, such mistrust began to disappear when China has consistently provided aid and FDI to fulfill the economic needs of Cambodia while the US and some Western countries have criticized Hun Sen’s government over human rights and political issues. After Cambodia and China upgraded its relations to the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation in 2010, China’s role and presence in Cambodia have significantly increased. In 2014, China promised to provided development assistance to Cambodia between USD 500 million and USD 700 million annually. During the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting in Mongolia in 2016, China pledged to provide USD 600 million for a period of three years from 2016 to 2018. In 2017, China also pledged to provide $600 million annually for the period of three year from 2017 to 2019 to help improve education, health care, and infrastructure in the Kingdom. In October 2020, Cambodia and China signed a free trade agreement (FTA) which allows Cambodia to export 95% of commodities to Chinese market tariff-free, helping to improve Cambodia’s exports to China by 25%. The Cambodia-China FTA ads to the evidence indicating China’s increasing influence in Cambodia as well as Cambodia’s increasing tilt toward China, particularly when the European Union has partially withdrawn its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme from Cambodia.
The turning point
The Sino-Cambodian relations have turned into a new page when China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as other initiatives as such the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. Under these Chinese development initiatives, Cambodia sees great opportunities in engaging China. Vietnam, on the other hand, perceives the Chinese initiatives as a threat to its water and national security. The BRI has transformed Cambodia’s infrastructure and economic development. Sihanoukville province is a case in point. The influx of Chinese investment into the province has significantly transformed it beyond recognition.
The Cambodian government frequently stated that “Cambodia’s development could not be detached from Chinese aid” and even mentioned that China is a “steadfast friend”. Even though the relations between Cambodia and Vietnam remains good, the overlapping territorial claims between China and a few ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, have put on display Cambodia’s strategic tilt toward China at the expense of its relations with Vietnam and other ASEAN members. In 2012 when Cambodia was the ASEAN chair, the country was criticized because of its close relations with China, particularly when its decisions had resulted in the failure of ASEAN to reach a common position emphasizing legal and multi-lateral diplomacy as regards the South China Sea disputes. The 2012 ASEAN fiasco, to some extent, showed the Chinese influence on Cambodia’s strategic decisions.
This incident made Hanoi felt uncomfortable with Hun Sen, causing a sense of hostility among the Vietnamese. There was an accusation from Vietnamese people that he is a traitor. In response, Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page that “I am loyal to my Cambodian people, the King, and my wife. Vietnam is not my boss. I am the leader of an independent and sovereign Cambodia, and I am equal to Vietnamese leaders in terms of rank”. Thus, with the growing influence of China on Cambodia, Phnom Penh and Hanoi seemed to suffer from growing suspicion.
Explaining Cambodia’s position toward China
There are at least three reasons to explain Cambodia’s position toward China. First, China is Cambodia’s largest bilateral donor and largest FDI provider. Notably, 43% of FDI in Cambodia comes from China, accounting for 70% job opportunities for Cambodians working on various infrastructure development projects. Between 1994 and 2016, Chinese FDI in Cambodia reached $14.7 billion. China also helps finance a number of infrastructure development projects in Cambodia, including six major bridges and 3,287 kilometers of roads. In 2019, China provided US $2 billion to build Cambodia’s first highway connecting Sihanoukville province and Phnom Penh.
Second, there seems to be a stark difference in the conduct of foreign policies of Cambodia and Vietnam. Vietnam has embraced the US as it hopes to defend its maritime sovereignty from the Chinese encroachment. Cambodia, on the contrary, has moved closer to China as the latter is the reliable source of economic development and political backing that the CPP needs to sustain power and dominance. Moreover, turning away from Vietnam helps the current government to gain domestic political support as the now-disbanded major opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, often used the Vietnamese card to play against the ruling party.
Third, it appears that ASEAN is ineffective in providing a security guarantee to a small state like Cambodia. In 2011, Cambodia sought assistance from ASEAN to help resolve its border dispute with Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple and its surrounding area. However, ASEAN failed to come up with any settlement mechanism to address the border conflict. In fact, ASEAN failed Cambodia as it failed to prevent a military clash between the two countries during their border conflict. Moreover, as Cambodia appears to be sandwiched between its two former adversaries, Thailand and Vietnam, one of the most viable options is to seek external support from major powers such as China and the US. The current Cambodian elites are well aware of the existential threat posed by Vietnam as they are always cautious when dealing with Vietnam over the border and immigrant issues. Building strong relations with China, therefore, could provide security confidence for Cambodia to balance against the neighbouring threat. As some analysts noted, Cambodian political elites view strong relations with China to be a viable strategy for Cambodia to build its military capacity. China’s support is an effective tool for Cambodia to “hedge” against Vietnam.
In conclusion, in the international anarchical world, states’ relations with one another frequently change based on their national interests determined by the elite group. As British diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson famously put it, nations do not have permanent friends or enemies. They have permanent interests. This statement is true to the conduct of international relations as states often change their relations with other states when their interests change. This is applicable to Cambodia’s current foreign policy approaches toward China and Vietnam. Cambodia had strong relations with Vietnam in the early 1990s. However, relations started to change when China began to increase its presence in Southeast Asia in general and in Cambodia in particular.
To advance their interests, Cambodia and China have cemented their relations and engaged in reciprocal relationship. While Cambodia seeks financial and military support from China, to a certain extent, it reciprocates by helping China to advance its agendas in Asia, including the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. As the Sino-Cambodian relations become stronger, the effect is felt in the Cambodia-Vietnam relations. Thus, given the significant role that both China and Vietnam play in Cambodia’s economic and security interests, Phnom Penh needs to be particularly careful in walking the delicate tightrope balancing Beijing and Hanoi.
*Sokvy Rim is an intern at Cambodian Education Forum. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
*Kimkong Heng is a co-founder of Cambodian Education Forum and a former assistant dean of the School of Graduate Studies, the University of Cambodia. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia.