Who Gains from Cambodia’s Strategic Partnership with China?

National Museum of Cambodia © Io Herodotus / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Cambodia is a vital partner to China and the EU in Southeast Asia. As the EU becomes distant, Cambodia is increasingly playing a role in supporting Chinese interests which can result in a ‘win-win’ for China and Cambodia.

There are a few vital issues in the field of security studies in which Cambodia has been supportive of China. These include: the South China Sea dispute, the ever-growing Belt and Road Initiative, and fervent support of China’s ‘Partnership Diplomacy’. All of these are interlinked through China’s dedication to improving Cambodia, often when other major players have turned a blind eye, to Cambodia’s detriment. It could be argued that the livelihoods of Cambodia’s citizens thanks to Chinese support has improved. Economic investment, developmental aid, trade, and diplomatic ties have arguably made Cambodia a better, more stable place.

Cambodia and China have both risen in recent years, much to the benefit of their own citizens. Economically, they have never seen better times. Poverty continues to fall in Cambodia, with the poverty rate at 13.5% in 2014 compared to 47.8% in 2007, according to official estimates.

In recent years, there has been a decrease in terrorist incidents in Cambodia and the wider region. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s biggest terrorism risks, despite a recent decline in incidents. The Cambodian government is constantly wary of terrorism and media coverage in Cambodia has raised concern over the rise of extremism online.

Among many states in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has warm relations with nations from both East and West. Historically, much has been said about the heavy influence of the West, particularly Europe, in Cambodia. The European Union gives beneficial treatment to Cambodia in the field of trade. Despite exerting heavy influence, the EU’s input is waning. China has been successful in gaining traction in the region and becoming a more important ally to Cambodia than any Western nation. For five straight years between 2013 and 2017, China has been Cambodia’s largest foreign direct investor, with investment continuing to grow year on year. China is currently still Cambodia’s largest foreign direct investor and closest ally, and trade volume between the two countries is expected to hit $10 billion by 2023. A current member of the party's Politburo Standing Committee (China's top decision-making body) said that ‘China will find different ways to help Cambodia’, as China has good reason to see a successful co-existence with Cambodia, as there are currently ‘more than 1,000 factories in Cambodia, of which 700 have been invested by Chinese investors’.

Although Cambodia is not on the South China Sea, it has a surprising amount of influence when it comes to dealing with the issue of the South China Sea. As Cambodia is a member of ASEAN, they effectively have a veto and a very powerful influence when discussing future policies and actions that the group of nations takes together. At an ASEAN summit, Cambodia defended China’s position on the South China Sea dispute. There was no final common communiqué – for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history. If agreed, it would have given the green light for an approach that would have been critical of China.

This cooperation and defence of China has led to benefits for Cambodia. China has been able to balance security and growth for policy gains. For example, there has been a recent drive in cooperation to defeat cyber-crime and cyber-scammers with China and the Cambodia services working together to ensure internet safety. In 2018, Cambodia’s Interior Ministry and China’s Ministry of Public Security agreed to boost their cooperation in the fields of counterterrorism and combating cybercrime. In addition to these concrete measures online, both countries have strengthened military cooperation.

China has provided $100 million in military assistance and the two countries have held joint military exercises. The biggest ever exercise was last year with 252 Chinese soldiers and 382 Cambodian soldiers along with some 2,200 other personnel taking part.

China’s positive influence goes far wider than direct crime prevention and defence cooperation. According to media reports, the first 8 months of 2019 saw Cambodia attract 1.5 million Chinese tourists in 7 months. This is one of many indirect effects of warming relations between the two countries. The rise of regional tourism is also a minor part of one of Beijing’s big policy initiatives that is to connect China with wide parts of Asia, the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) and the planned Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway form part of a connectivity plan that is to tighten economic cooperation between the two nations. The second phase of development is now underway. This investment could serve China’s strategic interests significantly.

This is a way toward building peace and friendship among countries by enhancing mutual understanding, trust, and strengthening all-round exchanges. Cambodia and China benefit from this mutual cooperation, which indirectly leads to a safer climate for economic prosperity.

Cambodia is a good case study in what China should be doing with its partners. Whereas the West has been lacking in diplomatic skills and also, in terms of investment, China has stepped up to the plate on the world stage by helping those who need it most. In Cambodia, and in Southeast Asia, if you align with a certain world view, China is certainly a powerful player in the region and increasingly influential in great-power competition.

China gives generously to improve bilateral ties in trade, culture, and connectivity. Beijing hereby creates a win-win scenario for all parties involved. China’s current measures can be supplemented and extended, and its interaction with Cambodia can serve as a blueprint and model for China’s foreign policy initiatives and China’s Partnership Diplomacy. Many countries in the region would have the drive and possibility of added prosperity if they were to engage with the Chinese model of Partnership Diplomacy, with the evidence of added infrastructure, security, and tourism. Furthermore, global policy that is founded on common interests is conducive to combating terrorism and crime, by transgressing borders and venturing online.

Some may question how looking outwards rejuvenates the Chinese nation. However, working together with international partners from various parts of the world is crucial for creating common, effective, and practical policy. Having stable partners in Southeast Asia makes the region and therefore China more secure and safe. Stability in China and in partner nations makes the world more prosperous for all. Thriving economies enable the Chinese economy to go global and spread its recently gained prosperity to other countries. The economic benefits gained from this close interaction and relation will provide a strong incentive to other countries to support China.

Walker Darke

This article was edited for clarity on the 15th November.

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

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