At first glance, Cambodia is insignificant. Indeed, with a GDP per capita in 2019 of only $1,620 and a growth rate hovering below seven percent, Cambodia is far from an East Asian economic powerhouse. The Cambodian economy lags far behind its peers in the region. Within Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s GDP per capita is only higher than Myanmar, a country wrecked by decades of Western sanctions. Despite such lackluster display of national strength, the country has received heightened interest in the international community in recent years. In 2019, the United States appointed W. Patrick Murphy, a senior Southeast Asian expert in the State Department, as the new U.S. ambassador to Cambodia at a time when there were many ambassadorial vacancies in countries as important as Egypt and Brazil. The appointment of such a qualified individual, with nearly 30 years of diplomatic experience, indicates that the United States does not take Cambodia’s importance on the international stage lightly.
Though paradoxical at first, Cambodia’s diplomacy toward its Southeast Asian neighbors, Western nations, and especially China could explain U.S. attentiveness toward Phnom Penh. Current Cambodian diplomacy creates complications for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states and the United States at a critical time when China is flexing its might across the Asia Pacific. Specifically, Cambodia has twice blocked, once in 2012 and again in 2016, ASEAN from having a unified stance against China’s increasing encroachment in the South China Sea. Given that ASEAN must achieve consensus to carry out any form of initiative, Cambodia’s obstruction has proven pivotal in preventing ASEAN from unifying against a powerful China.
Cambodia’s permissiveness toward China has granted an already powerful nation a platform to project its military strength close to ASEAN states, thus jeopardizing ASEAN’s efforts to counter China’s encroachment in the South China Sea. Cambodia has furtively allowed China to use its southern port of Ream as a military facility. China’s access to such a critical location has afforded it the ability to project power toward the important Malacca Strait, a chokepoint through which one-third of global shipping passes. Moreover, China’s military presence at Ream means it surrounds Vietnam on three sides (north, east, and eouth) and could strike at other ASEAN states such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Phnom Penh and Beijing also coordinate in force training and the development of physical military assets, with China offering to train hundreds of Cambodian military officers each year as well as upgrade Cambodia’s military infrastructure. With the U.S.-China relationship growing increasingly hostile and Southeast Asia becoming an important battleground for great power competition, Cambodia and its diplomatic posture inevitably come to the increasing attention of Washington.
Cambodia also has very close economic relations with China. In 2018, China was Cambodia’s largest investor, accounting for 26 percent of the country’s total foreign direct investment and outstripping the next largest sovereign investor, South Korea, by a margin of more than three to one. China is Cambodia’s largest source of infrastructure loans, with Chinese-sponsored projects generating more than 2,000 kilometers of road in the country. In addition, six of Cambodia’s current hydroelectric dams—all built by Chinese companies—represent 47 percent of Cambodia’s total electricity output. As a result of these engagements, Cambodia is more pliant to China’s wishes. Cambodia’s complaisance is most apparent in its efforts to downplay the danger of COVID-19 pandemic, no doubt to avoid antagonizing China.
Cambodia’s relations with Western powers are far from cordial, as Phnom Phen wholly rejects democratization. The Cambodian government has been actively denying opposition parties any chance to assume power through democratic means In response, the EU ceased preferential treatment for Cambodian exports to the EU in 2019 on grounds of the country’s deteriorating human rights situations. Adding fuel to the fire, the United States imposed sanctions on Cambodian officials in December 2019 due to the alleged human rights violations .
Taken together, as Cambodia is playing second fiddle to Chinese ambitions in the region, it is antagonizing its neighbors and the West, further isolating the country in the process. This creates a positive feedback loop in which isolation gives rise to an ever-increasing Cambodian reliance on Beijing, thus exacerbating relations with ASEAN states and the West. Phnom Penh’s current diplomatic trajectory not only harms its neighbors but also puts Cambodia in a precarious position by giving Beijing a near-total diplomatic monopoly with the country. Such reliance will be problematic for Cambodia and its people. Chinese economic engagement in Cambodia has already shown some worrying signs. The Cambodian elite and Chinese diaspora capture most of the economic benefits of Chinese investment with little trickling to the average Cambodians. Furthermore, rampant Chinese development projects (in Sihanoukville province alone, China has built more than 100 casinos, hotels, and resorts) have brought a huge influx of Chinese nationals into the country with little oversight from the Cambodian government. This has caused friction with the local populace as they increasingly see Chinese as foreign invaders. Environmentally, Chinese dam projects also affect the flow of the Mekong River, Cambodia’s primary food provider.
In order to prevent Cambodia from further sliding into complete reliance on China, the country must diversify its diplomatic relations. Phnom Penh should give some concessions to Western human rights concerns by allowing opposition parties more opportunities to participate in governance. Concerning its Southeast Asian neighbors, Cambodia can dampen their antipathy by following the collective wishes of the bloc or simply refrain from obstructing its efforts to have a unified response to Chinese encroachment in the region. This course of action is not dramatic enough to prompt Beijing to undermine its relations with Cambodia, as China would fear losing an important partner after having committed so many resources; China has invested so much in Cambodia that decoupling with the country would be an extremely painful process.
Cambodia is in a perilous period in which the country must choose between Chinese-driven economic development or improving relations with its neighbors and the West. Neither choice is easy. However, the latter one at least presents an opportunity to prevent total Chinese domination not just in Cambodia but ASEAN as well.
Tri Vo is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Asian Affairs. He has a deep interest in East Asian international relations, history, and politics.