Cambodia’s strategic positioning between the United States and China


Since the 1980s, Cambodia’s relations with the United States and China have fundamentally shifted. In 1988, former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen described China as ‘evil’. But in 2016, he described ties as ‘ironclad.’ At the same time, Phnom Penh’s relations with Washington have worsened.

Three main reasons accounting for this pattern are economic, political and security issues. Security — specifically the Cambodian government’s desire to remain in power — is the main reason for improved ties with China and deteriorating links with the United States. 

While Cambodia maintains warm ties with China, it seeks to avoid an adversarial relationship with the United States. Demonstrating a preference for amicable ties with the world’s leading power, Cambodia has spent half a million dollars in a public relations effort in Washington to advance its ties with the United States.

As a staunch supporter of Cambodia, China allocates economic funding, political support and ample assistance, particularly in traditional security — weapons and materials for security purposes. China’s comprehensive support aligns with what Phnom Penh seeks

China’s military assistance advances Cambodia’s security against domestic and international threats. While the United States provides Cambodia with security assistance, it tends to be in areas that are less salient in maintaining regime security. For example, US support has focussed on non-traditional security areas, such as assisting with counter-terrorism measures and people smuggling. Unlike Beijing, Washington does not provide Cambodia with military supplies. 

In 2017, military ties between Cambodia and the United States ended due to the contentious relationship. While significant external security factors exist, Cambodia’s evolving relationship with the United States and China was primarily influenced by internal factors in Cambodia. 

Chinese economic funding advances Cambodian public and private goods, as it promotes infrastructure as an overall public good and provides kickbacks to elites to support the current government. Ensuring people are content removes a potential threat to the government’s hold on power. Despite investors from Japan, South Korea and the United States seeking to hinder corruption in Cambodia, Chinese actors are less concerned about the issue.

Regarding Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in Cambodia, there is ongoing scrutiny, particularly from those who view it negatively. Cambodian public opinion towards China has fluctuated in recent years, with critics arguing that Chinese investments benefit those in power rather than the majority of the Cambodian people.

In contrast, US FDI in Cambodia, provided by the private sector, is very limited, trailing behind Chinese FDI, which is both public and private. US companies are concerned about investing in countries that do not have good ties with the United States. Despite this deficit, the United States is Cambodia’s leading destination for its exports. While the United States has not provided much FDI, the US government has funded education and public health initiatives in Cambodia.

Unlike Beijing, Washington does not provide Cambodia with political support — the United States actively condemns Cambodia’s poor human rights practices. While the United States’ naming and shaming of Cambodia is viewed as a threat to the Cambodian government, the United States is not perceived as a country that will invade Cambodia. The main threat is the potential impact that the United States may have domestically in Cambodia, as Cambodians, who are very supportive of the United States, may seek to remove the government from power. Because China avoids such actions, it is viewed as an easier partner to work with.

With the new government under Hun Sen’s son, Prime Minister Hun Manet, Cambodia’s foreign policy regarding China remains unchanged. Despite Hun Sen leaving office, he remains the Cambodian People’s Party leader and is viewed as yielding considerable power in his son’s government. Hun Manet, reflecting his father’s foreign policy, visited China twice in 2023. During these visits, Hun Manet received much-needed support from China, such as assistance with Cambodia’s new development policy — the Pentagonal Strategy — and signed 23 important agreements regarding Chinese development projects in Cambodia.

In 2023, Hun Manet engaged with US business leaders at the UNGA gathering, signalling efforts to repair relations with the United States. Cambodian interlocutors consulted on the matter view Hun Manet’s West Point experience as an opportunity for improved ties with the United States, pointing to how the United States resumed its US$18 million aid provision to Cambodia.

Washington was scheduled to provide US$18 million to Cambodia but decided to freeze it following the July election, citing concerns about the election’s fairness. After Hun Manet assumed the premiership, the United States seemed to view it as an opportunity to repair relations with Cambodia. The funding was subsequently provided through the United States Agency for International Development.

Under Hun Manet’s leadership, as long as there are no major domestic political threats to his rule, Cambodia will continue to maximise its benefits by further embracing China and repairing ties with the United States. Given that Hun Manet is interested in developing ties with US businesses, there seems to be less of an adversarial relationship between the two countries than during Hun Sen’s leadership.

Source: East Asia Forum