Cambodia’s Two Suitors: China and the US

8 September 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – To survive and prosper in a dynamic and complex region, Cambodia has to seek strategic proximity with all major powers. China and the US are the most important actors in the Asia Pacific region. Cambodia needs to develop good relations with both countries.
As a small country, Cambodia does not have the capacity to shape the relations between major powers. Regional order is much dependent on how China and the US project their power and accommodate each other’s core interests. A stable and healthy Sino-US relation is thus the cornerstone of regional peace and development.
China-Cambodian Ties 
Since 1997, Sino-Cambodian relations have been significantly strengthened. Bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership was reached in 2010. Currently Cambodia is China’s closest friend in Southeast Asia. For instance, Cambodia shares similar views with China with regards to the South China Sea disputes. Cambodia fully supports China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
US-Cambodian Ties
US-Cambodian bilateral ties have gradually improved since early 2000s. Human resources development, security and economic relations are the main areas of cooperation. However, differences in democratic values and human rights remain the stumbling block in advancing ties to a new level. U.S. President Barack Obama made clear to Prime Minister Hun Sen at the bilateral summit in November 2012 that issues related to democracy and human rights are the main impediments to a strengthened bilateral relationship.
Cambodia is pro-Cambodia
Cambodia is striving to be neutral. Cambodia is pro-Cambodia. The countries it leans towards is largely determined by approaches applied by these countries. China’s foreign policy approach towards Cambodia has been more effective than the US’s.
For the current government, Cambodia’s national interests are defined in terms of economic development, security, and cultural identity. China is regarded as the most important development partner. China has provided more than $3 billion development assistance and invested more than $10 billion in Cambodia.
The U.S. is the biggest market for Cambodia’s textile exports, the key export industry employing more than half million Cambodian workers. The U.S. has provided an annual development assistance of about $80 million, mostly channeled through non-governmental organizations and humanitarian assistance programs.
Political Trust Matters
Hun Sen’s government does not really trust the U.S. given the perceived double standard in Washington’s foreign policy towards Asia. The U.S. does not allow their strategic partnership to be constrained by democracy and human rights. The U.S. did not put much pressure on Thai junta after the military coup in 2014. But the U.S. emphasizes democracy and human rights in its bilateral relations with Cambodia.
China has earned trust from current Cambodian ruling elites through economic and cultural diplomacy, non-interference, and mutual respect. Although China is a big country and second largest world economic power, China has not imposed pressure or intervened into Cambodian politics.
China has given privilege to Hun Sen in important international forums or platforms. Most importantly, China has taken good care of the Cambodian royal family. Special support provided by China to the late King Norodom Sihanouk, particularly after he passed away in Beijing in October 2012, did win the heart of Cambodian people.
Party Politics and Domestic Political Changes
While the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) leans towards China, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has closer ties with the U.S. and its allies.  If the opposition party comes to power after the general election in 2018, Cambodia’s foreign policy may potentially experience a critical swing. U.S. may find a window of opportunity to build its strategic partnership with Cambodia.
China seems to put all its eggs in one basket, which is to cultivate strong partnership with the ruling CPP, ignoring the opposition CNRP. In contrast to how China treats the opposition party in Myanmar by laying the red carpet to welcome opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, China has never invited the opposition leader from Cambodia and does not seem to have any plan to invest in building a partnership with the opposition CNRP. This may be a risk for China if there is any political change in the Kingdom.

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