Holding Balance Between Two Superpowers: Cambodia’s Strategic Choices For Foreign And Development Policy – Analysis


Security and stability in the Asia Pacific in the 21st century is being affected by strategic competition for influence over a wide range of vital interests in the region between China and the United States. It is clear that China’s aspiration to predominance, as a strategic equal to the U.S., has created a rivalry in the relationship between the two great powers. This competition significantly impacts on Southeast Asia in general and Cambodia in particular. Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, face tough decisions regarding their involvement with the two superpowers; balancing their relationship with them so that their own interests are not compromised but advanced, and the greatest benefit gained.

Cambodia consequently finds itself in a challenging strategic environment. US − China competition in Southeast Asia presents Cambodia both with dangers and opportunities. Given that both countries have played, and continue to play, an important role in boosting Cambodia’s economic and security development, Cambodia should carefully balance relations between China and the US.

Superpowers’ Strategic Interests and Cambodia’s Response

The US and China have different motivations, policy characteristics and interests in relations with Cambodia, in particular in providing aid assistance. As such, they not only compete for, but sometimes conflict in their influence. Whereas the US has been the strongest supporter of democratisation, social, economic, and political development, trade, investment, regional security, civil society, and most importantly human rights, China has taken the lead in developing infrastructure such as roads, bridges and public buildings. The key strategic interest of the US in Cambodia is to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, whereas China places greater focus on the exploitation of natural resources, furthering business ties and gaining political advantage.

The two countries also have different approaches to achieve their goals in Cambodia. While US aid is tied to strict conditions, Chinese aid has a “no strings attached” approach, leading to conflicting interests. The “no strings attached” policy of China − meaning that China does not require documented proof of the appropriate use of funds − can have the consequence of the funds at times being implicated in corruption, poor governance or human rights issues. This differs from the US policy of requiring proof of the use of funds, and conflicts with its valuing of democratic accountability. At the same time, China’s policy of non-interference in internal affairs, which differs from US interference, can in contrast be seen to promote Cambodia’s own efforts for good governance and democracy.i

Most American assistance to Cambodia has not been directly provided to the government. Rather, it has been made available through USAID to local and international NGOs operating in Cambodia, and has focused on democracy and good governance. USAID has also provided for social, health care, education and economic development. The US has also provided support directly to the Cambodian government in a wide range of military cooperation areas, such as humanitarian assistance, promotion of peacekeeping, increasing maritime security and broadening Cambodia’s counterterrorism strategy.ii However, assistance is subject to strict conditions and if it is assessed that democratic principles are violated, its provision could immediately cease. This was evident following the internal political turmoil in Cambodia in July 1997, when the US suspended all aid programs, including military assistance, because it considered the actions of the government to go against the principles of democracy and human rights. The diplomatic relationship between the US and Cambodia subsequently declined.iii

By comparison, China’s policy of ‘non-interference in domestic affairs’ means that China offers assistance without conditions being placed on democratic reform, human rights, or environmental protection. China has never addressed or criticised human rights or electoral issues in Cambodia. For example, while the U.S. and the international community overwhelmingly condemned Hun Sen’s seizure of power in July 1997, China let the domestic process reach its own conclusion.iv While this gesture garnered appreciation from the Cambodian government which regarded it as respectful of Cambodian sovereignty, it may also be considered to be potentially detrimental to ‘ordinary people’, the farmers and the workers, with the potential to result in unchecked oppression, leading to social unrest and violence as can be seen today.v

Chinese aid is primarily allocated directly to the Cambodian government, usually without requirements to report development results. It has been argued that Chinese aid is not transparent, and there is no standard operating procedure regarding its disbursement. In a country where the standards of government accountability are at times questionable, there may be inefficiencies or corruption with senior government officials siphoning these funds off for personal gain. While Chinese aid does not directly impact upon Cambodian internal affairs, it does have the potential to do so indirectly, either positively, by benefiting all people, or, negatively, by enriching the few.vi

China has become the largest donor and provider of foreign investment in Cambodia, greatly benefiting Cambodian development. However, China’s national interests in Cambodia are extensive. China’s cultivation of closer ties with Cambodia is primarily motivated by hard-nosed economic self-interest and the pursuit of wider strategic goals in Southeast Asia. Economically, China is thirsty for natural resources and China is heavily investing in Cambodia’s natural resources such as timber, gas, oil, rubber, fertile cropland, and minerals (gold, silver, and iron ore). It provides enhanced security for the supply of vital natural commodities.vii

In return for Chinese “unconditional” aid, one of China’s most important strategies is to garner support for the One China policy, of which Cambodia is one of the most loyal proponents. As a result, the Cambodian government decided to expulse Taiwan’s liaison office in 1997 and declined a request from Taiwan to re-establish an economic office in Cambodia in 1998, despite the incentive of millions of dollars of Taiwanese investment that were offered.viii Cambodia also provides support to China regarding regional issues. For example, the Cambodian government has supported China’s opposition to multilateral negotiations regarding the South China Sea dispute. During its 2012 chairmanship of ASEAN, Cambodia backed the Chinese interest regarding the South China Sea dispute with some ASEAN member states, which resulted in the failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history.ix This has resulted in suspicion towards Cambodia by some ASEAN members. Similarly, Cambodia is reluctant to strongly criticise or protest environmental issues resulting from Chinese policies. This is best demonstrated by Chinese dam building on the Mekong, which is being tolerated despite potential environmental devastation affecting millions of Cambodians who depend on this water for drinking, irrigation, fishing, and sediments that naturally fertilise the land, in short for their food, their water, their sanitation and, in many instances, their income.x

The recent U.S. intervention in the Mekong River region, the Lower Mekong Initiative (L.M.I.) launched in 2009, has clearly shown that the U.S. is counterbalancing China’s rising influence in Southeast Asia.xi Yet, disagreement on democratic practice and human rights issues has posed significant challenges for the U.S. in wishing to broaden its bilateral relationship with Cambodia. Cambodia – U.S. relations, although considerably improved since 2007 when the U.S. government lifted a ten-year ban on direct bilateral aid to Cambodia, in response to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s U.S. alleged unlawful seizure of power in 1997, are usually strained whenever there have been serious human rights violations or contested elections in Cambodia. Despite the U.S. being committed to deepening relations with Cambodia as part of its “pivot” strategy in the region, respecting human rights is still a condition of involvement.

This was evident during the 2012 meeting between U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Cambodian Minister of National Defense General Tea Banh, when the U.S., though committing to military ties, strongly emphasised democracy and human rights protection. During President Obama’s visit to Cambodia for the 2012 East Asian Summit, talks with Hun Sen, on human rights, fundamental political freedoms and elections in Cambodia, were tense. According to then U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William E. Todd, “As President Obama made clear in his meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on the margins of the EAS, lack of progress on issues related to democracy and human rights is an impediment to the United States and Cambodia developing a deeper bilateral relationship.”xii

The Cambodian government faces a strategic dilemma in weighing the trade-off between the value of economic infrastructure and its impact on the ecology and the livelihood of the people; between unconditional Chinese aid and investment and between the U.S. effort to promote a stable Cambodia by improving democracy, good governance, human rights and political freedoms. These are challenging issues, as both models contain clear benefits as well as evident limitations.

China’s policy of non-interference is appreciated by the Cambodian government which regards it as respectful of Cambodian sovereignty. However, it can be seen to provide an opportunity for Cambodia to have a “free ride” on the efforts of the international community, in particular the U.S., to get Cambodia on the right track for democracy, good governance and human rights, since Cambodia can ultimately turn to China when it disagrees with these. As Sophal Ear pointedly puts it: “When Cambodia falls under pressure from international bodies to reform its human rights abuses, corruption, oppression of its people, or misuse of power, it turns to China for financial support.”xiii This dynamic was evident when in 2011 the World Bank suspended lending over mass forced eviction of villagers from Phnom Penh’s Boueng Kak Lake development area: Cambodia simply turned to China for financial support.xiv

Excessive dependence on China has placed Cambodian foreign policy firmly under China’s influence. As noted, this was clearly seen when Cambodia used its 2012 Chairmanship of ASEAN to back China in the South China Sea dispute, an action with potential to seriously affect ASEAN’s unity.xv During her visit to Cambodia in November 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an insightful comment warning Cambodia from depending only on China with the words: “you don’t want to get too dependent on any one country.” xvi

It is good for Cambodia to have foreign investment to develop its economy independently and with ownership. However, the lack of transparency of Chinese investment can prove problematic. It seems that Chinese firms have pursued their own benefits and interests without considering the long-term environmental impact on local communities. For example, Chinese-built hydro-electric dams in Cambodia’s Mekong mainstream and tributaries seriously affect the hydrological system and thereby the communities who heavily depend on the river for their livelihoods.xvii

Like that of China, U.S. assistance makes significant contributions to Cambodia’s development in all fields. Since renewing relations with Cambodia in 1993, U.S. involvement focuses on the upholding of democratic development, the protection of human rights, the practice of good governance, the rule of law, reducing the threat of terrorism, and bringing the country’s former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. Cambodia’s democracy is still not yet mature; therefore, the U.S. has played an important role in building a sustainable democracy by supporting civic participation, the respect for human rights, the rule of law, and accountable governance. The U.S. has actively supported Cambodia’s political development through programs that foster democratisation and political accountability. However, the strict conditions attached to American aid have sometimes caused troubled relations.

The Way Ahead for Cambodia

Cambodia’s strategic environment continues to present a dilemma because of competition between China and the U.S. for regional and Cambodian influence. Cambodia has a tough choice of how and under what conditions to interact with the two superpowers, which requires a thoughtful and careful response to balance the two.
It seems that there are three options for Cambodia: 1) Cambodia walks a tightrope – treading a clear and wisely crafted path, balancing China and the U.S. simultaneously; 2) Cambodia aligns more closely with China at the expense of relations with the U.S. and regional partners; and 3) Cambodia aligns more closely with the U.S. at the expense of its relationship with China.

The first option arguably promises to deliver the best outcome for Cambodia. It is possible for Cambodia to benefit from both superpowers to create a better future for itself and its people. The U.S. wants Cambodia to be democratic, a free market economy committed to the rule of law which supports international norms of human rights, good governance etc. The assumption is that this will create a stable and secure Cambodia. The U.S. would expect Cambodia’s policies to be consistent with its national interests and those of other close U.S. allies, such as South Korea and Japan, also key players in boosting Cambodia’s development.

For China, the goal is to be a legitimate power in the world and to be free to establish relations with countries as it sees fit. It does not want to be told by the U.S. what it can and cannot do in its neighbourhood. Moreover, China wants to influence Cambodia to support its policies and projects within the region. In addition, China wants access to Cambodian air and sea facilities if needed. China’s desire is to invest in Cambodia. It has no desire to change the political system, nor does it support democratisation, human rights etc. which, it views as internal matters rather than international norms.

If Cambodia aligns itself more closely with China, this may offset U.S. efforts to turn Cambodia into a democratic society. It may deter respect for the principle of human rights, and the practice of good governance, and could result in the disappearance of democracy in Cambodia. It could threaten investment by and trade with the U.S. and other Western countries, including the garment sector which exports around 70 percent of its goods to the U.S. market. Cambodia would also be at risk of losing valuable anti-China allies within ASEAN and the alliance of the U.S. such as South Korea and Japan, key investors and donors in Cambodia. Also, there is the overhanging spectre of aid reduction from the international community, including the World Bank, the U.N. and Western countries.

If Cambodia aligns itself more closely with the U.S., it risks aggravating China and potentially jeopardising the projects, aid and grants which China currently provides, risking a significant development dilemma. It would likely affect respect between Cambodians and Chinese business persons, who play an important role in contributing economic development in Cambodia. At the same time, Cambodia will continue to face pressure from the U.S. for political reforms, to end corruption, and to respect human rights and the freedom of expression.

In sum, it seems unwise to align only with China or the U.S. Taking sides with either of these two superpowers presents significant risks for Cambodia. Therefore, what Cambodia must do is to tread a carefully and wisely crafted path that balances relations with China and the U.S. simultaneously. Cambodia could be a friend of both China and the U.S. and benefit from its relationship with both countries. The key strategic interest for Cambodia is that new infrastructure and the ensuring of human rights will lead to a prosperous and secure country. Both superpowers’ approaches have their benefits and Cambodia’s task is therefore to balance the needs of both and to offend neither. Cambodia must resolve its own domestic priorities, such as the elimination of corruption, cronyism, forced evictions, land evictions, the protection of human rights, the integrity of elections, etc. Separately, Cambodia must determine whether it benefits or loses from Chinese and American investment and involvement in economic, military and political affairs. Cambodia could introduce its own democratic and electoral reforms to satisfy U.S. conditions. It will benefit from acting in accordance with international commercial norms in dealing with China.

Arguably, Cambodia can be in an effective position to play the role of honest broker in reducing ongoing tensions between China and the United States, fulfilling the former Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong’s recent aspiration to play a more active regional foreign policy role. The United States is shifting its priorities to the Asia Pacific Region, making China nervous. This provides an ideal opportunity to upgrade Cambodia’s influence. Cambodia has particularly good strategic relations with both nations, which each has actively courted Cambodia in many areas, especially in economic and military relations.

It would be wise for Cambodia to use this opportunity to reduce tension between the two superpowers and enhance international order. By fulfilling this important task, Cambodia would be seen as role model contributing to peace and stability in the region. At the same time, Cambodia could benefit from harmony and peaceful cooperation between the two superpowers. Cambodia’s ambitious foreign policy would also play a more active role if Cambodia was to mediate in regional disputes, between China and ASEAN South China Sea claimant countries, mainly Vietnam. However, this may not come to pass unless Cambodia strictly adheres to the first proposed option: that is, to tread a clear line striking balance between China and the U.S. simultaneously. Choosing the second or third option poses a potential threat to Cambodia’s foreign policy and development strategy.

It is far better for Cambodia to have two friends rather than one ally and one enemy. Cambodia should steer a clear path in its partnership with both nations. Maybe this path is not as fraught with danger as it might appear. An environment of mutual respect for independence and for common interests between Cambodia, the U.S. and China will support reaching the very best outcomes for all involved parties. Cambodia’s best long term interests lie in regional initiatives, ASEAN, Mekong regional development, and working to harmonise foreign relations as far as possible with countries in the region. China and the U.S. are both key players in the region and key observers at ASEAN. Thus, picking the U.S. or China to the exclusion of the other is not the best option for Cambodia. Cambodia’s history has shown that choosing sides may lead to disaster.

About the author:
*Veasna Var, PhD Student, University of New South Wales at ADFA, Canberra.

Bower, Z. Ernest. “U.S. Moves to Strengthen ASEAN by Boosting the Lower Mekong Initiative.” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), July 24, 2012. Accessed June 12, 2016, https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-moves-strengthen-asean-boosting-lower-mekong-initiative.

Burgos, Sigfrido and Ear, Sophal. “China’s Strategic Interests in Cambodia: Influence and Resources.” Asian Survey 50, no. 3 (May/June 2010).

“China-built dam in Cambodia set to destroy livelihoods of 45,000.” South China Morning Post, September 20, 2015. accessed June 12, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1858974/china-built-dam-cambodia-set-destroy-livelihoods-45000.

Ciorciari, D. John. “China and Cambodia: Patron and Client.” International Policy Center (IPC),
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy University of Michigan, IPC Working Paper no. 121 (June 14, 2013). Accessed June 13, 2016. http://ipc.umich.edu/working-papers/pdfs/ipc-121-ciorciari-china-cambodia-patron-client.pdf.

Ear, Sophal. Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Goh, Evelyn. “China in the Mekong River Basin: The Regional Security Implications of Resources Development on the Lancange Jiang.” Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies Singapore no. 69 (July 2004). Accessed June 12, 2016. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP69.pdf.

Lim, Alvin Cheng-Hin. “ Sino-Cambodian Relations: Recent Economic And Military Cooperation.” Eurasia Review, June 30, 2015. Accessed June 12, 2016. http://www.eurasiareview.com/30062015-sino-cambodian-relations-recent-economic-and-military-cooperation-analysis/.

Long, Kosal. “Cambodia- China Relations.” Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) Working Paper no. 28 (July 2009). Accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.cicp.org.kh/userfiles/file/Working%20Paper/CICP%20Working%20Paper%20No%2028_%20Sino%20Cambodia%20Relations%20by%20Long%20Kosal.pdf.

Osborne, Milton. “The Mekong: River Under Threat.” Lowy Institute for International Policy, Lowy Institute Paper no. 27 (2009). Accessed June 13, 2016. http://www.lowyinstitute.org/files/pubfiles/Osborne,_The_Mekong_WEB.pdf.

Paul, Marks. “China’s Cambodia Strategy.” Parameters 30, no.3 (Autumn 2000).

Piesse, Mervyn. “Livelihoods and Food Security on the Mekong River.” Future Direction International, Strategic Analysis Paper, (May 26, 2016). Accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.futuredirections.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Livelihoods-and-Food-Security-on-the-Mekong-River.pdf.

Pomfret, John. “Clinton Urges Cambodia to Strike a Balance with China.” The Washington Post, November 1, 2010. Accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/11/01/AR2010110101460.html.

Todd, E. William. “The US-Cambodia Relationship: A Work in Progress.” The Ambassadors Review (Spring 2013). Accessed June 11, 2016, http://www.ciaonet.org/attachments/23086/uploads.

Tran, Mark. “World Bank suspends new lending to Cambodia over eviction of landowners.” The Guardian, August 11, 2011. Accessed 13, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2011/aug/10/world-bank-suspends-cambodia-lending.

Un, Kheang. “China’s Foreign Investment and Assistance: Implications for Cambodia’s Development and Democratization.” Peace and Conflict Studies 16, no. 2 (2009). Accessed June 13, 2016, http://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1108&context=pcs.

Var, Veasna. “Cambodia’s Strategic Relationship with China and the United States: Implications for Cambodia’s Development Aid.” European Academic Research 5, no. 2 (May 2016). Accessed June 12, 2016. http://euacademic.org/UploadArticle/2534.pdf.

i. Veasna Var, “Cambodia’s Strategic Relationship with China and the United States: Implications for Cambodia’s Development Aid,” European Academic Research 5, no. 2 (May 2016): 1721-1722.
ii. Ibid.
iii. Ibid.
iv. See for example, Kosal Long, “Cambodia- China Relations,” Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) Working Paper no. 28 (July 2009): 6-7, accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.cicp.org.kh/userfiles/file/Working%20Paper/CICP%20Working%20Paper%20No%2028_%20Sino%20Cambodia%20Relations%20by%20Long%20Kosal.pdf. ; Kheang Un, “China’s Foreign Investment and Assistance:
Implications for Cambodia’s Development and Democratization,” Peace and Conflict Studies 16, no. 2 (2009): 67-68, accessed June 13, 2016, http://nsuworks.nova.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1108&context=pcs.
v. See for example, “China-built dam in Cambodia set to destroy livelihoods of 45,000,” South China Morning Post, September 20, 2015, accessed June 12, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1858974/china-built-dam-cambodia-set-destroy-livelihoods-45000.; Milton Osborne, “The Mekong: River Under Threat,” Lowy Institute for International Policy, Lowy Institute Paper no. 27 (2009): 13-15, accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.lowyinstitute.org/files/pubfiles/Osborne,_The_Mekong_WEB.pdf
vi. See for example, John D. Ciorciari, “China and Cambodia: Patron and Client,” International Policy Center (IPC),
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy University of Michigan, IPC Working Paper no. 121 (June 14, 2013): 11-17, accessed June 13, 2016, http://ipc.umich.edu/working-papers/pdfs/ipc-121-ciorciari-china-cambodia-patron-client.pdf.
vii. Sigfrido Burgos and Sophal Ear, “China’s Strategic Interests in Cambodia: Influence and Resources,” Asian Survey 50, no. 3 (May/June 2010): 615.
viii. Marks Paul, “China’s Cambodia Strategy,” Parameters 30, no.3 (Autumn 2000): 95-6.
ix. Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, “ Sino-Cambodian Relations: Recent Economic And Military Cooperation,” Eurasia Review, June 30, 2015, accessed June 12, 2016, http://www.eurasiareview.com/30062015-sino-cambodian-relations-recent-economic-and-military-cooperation-analysis/.
x. See for example, Evelyn Goh, “China in the Mekong River Basin: The Regional Security Implications of Resources Development on the Lancange Jiang,” Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies Singapore no. 69 (July 2004): 11, accessed June 12, 2016, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP69.pdf.
xi. Ernest Z. Bower, “U.S. Moves to Strengthen ASEAN by Boosting the Lower Mekong Initiative,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), July 24, 2012, accessed June 12, 2016, https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-moves-strengthen-asean-boosting-lower-mekong-initiative.
xii. William E. Todd, “The US-Cambodia Relationship: A Work in Progress,” The Ambassadors Review (Spring 2013): 6, accessed June 11, 2016, http://www.ciaonet.org/attachments/23086/uploads.
xiii. Sophal Ear, Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 29-30.
xiv. Mark Tran, “World Bank suspends new lending to Cambodia over eviction of landowners,” The Guardian, August 11, 2011, accessed 13, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2011/aug/10/world-bank-suspends-cambodia-lending.
xv. Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim, “ Sino-Cambodian Relations: Recent Economic And Military Cooperation,”
xvi. John Pomfret, “Clinton Urges Cambodia to Strike a Balance with China,” The Washington Post, November 1, 2010, accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/11/01/AR2010110101460.html.
xvii. See for example, Mervyn Piesse, “Livelihoods and Food Security on the Mekong River,” Future Direction International, Strategic Analysis Paper, (May 26, 2016): 6, accessed June 13, 2016, http://www.futuredirections.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Livelihoods-and-Food-Security-on-the-Mekong-River.pdf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *