Why Cambodia is leaning towards China and not the US

Rim Sokvy | 17 May 2022 |
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Beijing, capital of China, May 17, 2017. (Photo: Xinhua)
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Sokvy Rim explains why Cambodia’s foreign policy options have been constrained by the leaders’ concerns of regime survival at various stages of its history. If this trajectory continues, it may be hard for it to conduct a hedging strategy in its relations between China and the US.

Material things such as power and balance of power in realist theories play an important role in explaining a state’s foreign policy. However, they have little significance for a small authoritarian state like Cambodia, especially in explaining Cambodia’s foreign policy towards the US and China. The ruling elite’s ideas and perceptions matter most in driving Cambodia’s relations with these two powerful nations.

Cambodia’s elite have the notion that the US is a threat to Cambodia’s regime while China is supportive of it. Consequently, Cambodia’s foreign policy tilts towards the latter rather than the former.

Such a notion is driven by the US’s past involvement in Cambodia’s domestic affairs and its efforts to end the Cambodian regime. The US has threatened the survival of the Cambodian regime on two fronts.

Firstly, it has sought to strengthen the democratic system in Cambodia via civic education and grassroots engagement. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is an example of a US-funded democracy-building vehicle in Cambodia. NDI needed around US$2 million a year to keep running in the five years prior to its forced closure in 2017.

US perceived as a troublemaker for the Cambodian regime

Moreover, the US strongly supports Cambodia’s opposition parties and independent media. Washington-backed media in Cambodia include Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of Democracy, Voice of America Khmer and the Cambodia Daily. These media outlets contributed largely to the ruling party losing popularity by discussing corruption, land disputes, human rights violations and other sensitive issues.

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