The Importance of EU’s Relations with Cambodia in its “Systemic Rivalry” with China

Updated: Apr 29


Cambodian family in Siem Reap © kolibri5 / Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons



Southeast Asia is rising to become one of the world’s most strategically important regions of the world, with the United States and United Kingdom both pursuing a new agenda called the “Indo-Pacific Tilt”. A stronger presence would help them contain China’s rise and secure important natural resources and trading routes at the same time. The European Union has been slower on this front, focusing more instead on its relations with the geographically closer African countries. Nevertheless, the region is becoming more important for Europe too, and relations with Southeast Asian countries will most likely become more and more central to the EU’s strategic vision in the future. This essay will study the state of play of EU-Cambodia-China relations and examine why this axis is of strategic importance in the EU’s external relations. By adopting a specific focus on Cambodia, the essay will allow for a deeper insight on how the EU can play a role in Southeast Asia and how this fits in its strategy vis-à-vis China.


EU-China-Cambodia trilateral relations

In the past couple of years, EU-China-Cambodia trilateral relations have generally been quite tense. In 2019, the EU imposed sanctions on Cambodia after Hun Sen’s government cracked down on opposition in 2017 and 2018 following regional and national elections. Several leaders from the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), were thus arrested and banned from political life for several years, which only added to the already long list of breeches to fundamental freedoms Hun Sen’s Cambodian People Party (CPP) committed since their arrival in power in 1997 (Karbaum, 2011). The waves of arrest then triggered an international response, with the United Nations Special Envoy reporting on the human rights situation in Cambodia and warning of the flagrant violations of human rights happening throughout the country. The EU, on its side, threatened the imposition of sanctions if the course of democracy was not corrected (Council of the European Union, 2018). The sanctions were eventually adopted in 2019 after several warnings, and thus 20% of the country’s exports were banned from the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme and are now subject to WTO tariffs when entering the EU (European Commission, 2020).


China and Cambodia, on the other hand, are long-time allies. Phnom Penh regularly defends Beijing in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding its actions in the South China Sea, and reaffirmed its support to the One China Policy on the issue of Taiwan’s independence (Pennisi di Floristella, 2021, p.143). In return, China increased its trade volume and aid to Cambodia in the face of the EU’s sanctions (Un and Luo, 2020; Onishi, 2021). On top of that, Cambodia is a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the flagship development strategy adopted by the Chinese government. The two countries also negotiated a Free Trade Agreement which just took effect on 1st January 2022. In the past year, Cambodia’s export to China saw a rise of 12% already, while Chinese investments in the country rose by 67% in 2021 compared to the year before despite the COVID-19 pandemic (Onishi, 2021; Xinhua, 2022). This means that China compensated for Cambodia’s loss of EU market following the sanctions almost entirely, effectively making the country undeterred by the EU’s actions (Un and Luo, 2020, p.131).


Lastly, with regard to EU-China bilateral relations, the two actors are both strategic partners and systemic rivals, as stated in the joint communication issued in 2019 (European Commission, 2019). Both powers recognize their economic interdependence (in 2019, China was the EU’s 2nd largest trading partner and the EU was China’s largest (European External Action Services, 2020)), but also recognise their major divergences on issues of democracy, liberal values, and human rights. Both actors often disagree in international fora such as the United Nations Security Council or the World Trade Organisation (WTO), although they also at times find common ground on reinforcing the established rules of the international order.


Overall, it does not come as a surprise that the complicated trilateral relations between the EU and China and Cambodia are at times so tense. Indeed, this reinforces the strategic importance of a smaller Southeast Asian country such as Cambodia. While Phnom Penh itself is not a direct reason for the tensions between the EU and China, the region still remains a ground where both powers showcase their capabilities, their external action tools and their soft power towards third countries. It makes sense that China’s behaviour would have more impact on Cambodia, having more historical and geographical ties with the country, and thus Beijing ends up having more influence in the region. However, given Cambodia’s and Southeast Asia’s strategic positioning in the current geopolitical context, the EU might want, and need, to increase its presence and seek greater impact policies, thus also becoming a possible competitor for China in the region.


The geopolitical importance of relations with Cambodia

Southeast Asian countries, and the ASEAN ones more specifically, are of high strategic value in international relations today. Over one third of the world’s total seaborne trade passes through the region’s waters, which are the home to several of the most important trading routes (Dibb, 2016).


On top of this, Southeast Asia is of major importance for Western powers, such as the US, the UK, and the EU, as part of their strategy vis-à-vis China. Indeed, geographical proximity and China’s dependence on the region for natural resources make all these countries valuable allies in the struggle to contain the rise of Beijing. For these reasons, military presence in Southeast Asia is a big part of the US’ security policy towards China, also with regard to the issues of the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait (Sokolsky, Rabasa, Neu, 2000). The UK announced an “Indo-Pacific tilt” in its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy paper published in 2021, emphasising economic and security concerns, as well as values and principles (Roy-Chaudhury, 2021). India also recognizes the growing importance of Southeast Asian countries, especially in the closer mainland Southeast Asia, and thus deployed a number of regional programmes aimed at increasing development cooperation and strategic engagement (Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, n.d.).


On the side of the EU, the region is described in official papers as the “centre of gravity in terms of trade, economic integration, demographics and security challenges” (Soutullo & Striegnitz, 2021). Although the greatest focus of the EU’s development policy is still on Africa, due to its long-term potential, Southeast Asia is of growing importance as member states are starting to recognize that the region could play a pivotal role in decreasing Europe’s dependency on Chinese exports.


Cambodia itself can play a relevant strategic role within Southeast Asia. It is the only ASEAN country openly supporting Beijing, particularly on the issues of the South China Sea and the “Nine-Dash Line”. Cambodia is also unilaterally blocking discussions and resolutions on these issues in international fora, and it was the first country in the region to announce its participation in the BRI. Some argue that without Cambodia’s support, there could even be room for a consensus between ASEAN countries to condemn Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. On top of this, observers have noted that with its large, cheap workforce and industrial potential, the country alone could help Western powers decrease Chinese imports and diversify their supply chains (Yuan, 2020). While Cambodia’s economic weight is still relatively small, just like its geopolitical power within international institutions, the country should not be overlooked in the Western countries’, and especially the EU’s, external policies towards China and the Indo-Pacific.


To conclude, this essay has studied the EU-China-Cambodia trilateral relations from each country’s point of view, highlighting its strategic geopolitical importance. The EU’s external strategy should pay close attention to the region, and particularly to Cambodia, as the latter, despite its relative weakness in the international stage, should not be an afterthought in the Western countries’ strategies towards China. Cambodia could be a tremendous help in reducing dependency on Chinese imports and in uniting the ASEAN countries at least against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. The EU’s sanctions, while sensible in the face of human rights violations in Cambodia, had little to no effect in weakening Hun Sen’s grip on power and had the unintended consequence of instead bringing him economically and politically closer to China. The EU should fully and officially recognize the strategic importance of Southeast Asia, like the US and UK already did, and increase its efforts in fostering good relations with the countries in the region, especially Cambodia. There are indeed plenty of opportunities, offered also by the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the country’s population and the government’s international isolation (Yuan, 2020). The EU and other Western powers should not sit idly by as Cambodia becomes a “client state” of China, and should instead push and work for a greater independence of the countries in the region.



Charlotte Paule recently graduated from a Masters degree in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and completed a Blue Book Traineeship in the European Commission’s DG for International Partnerships. Prior to that, she studied politics, international relations and EU studies at McGill University in Canada and Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her most recent research focused on the role of the EU in international politics, China and Taiwan’s political economy and Southeast Asian politics. You can find her on LinkedIn.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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