China and Cambodia: With Friends Like These…

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 1

Presidents Hu Jintao and Hun Sen

When Chinese President Hu Jintao paid his most recent state visit to Cambodia in April 2012, both sides agreed to designate 2013 the “China-Cambodia Year of Friendship” in a lavish commemoration of the 55th anniversary of their relationship (Xinhua, April 2, 2012). Although Cambodia remains arguably Beijing’s closest ally in Southeast Asia today and there is plenty to celebrate in the year ahead, several important limits to bilateral ties could nonetheless pose challenges for both sides in the future. 

Sino-Cambodian relations date back to the days of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from the 9th to 15th centuries (Global Times, August 25, 2010). The most famous historical point of the relationship was during the Yuan Dynasty, when the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan visited Cambodia in 1296 and wrote what remains one of the most detailed accounts of the city of Angkor and Khmer society [1]. Since modern diplomatic relations were established in 1958, China has backed various players in Cambodia to preserve its influence there, ranging from ex-King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s to the notorious Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s and now its current Prime Minister Hun Sen.   

The latest major turn in Sino-Cambodian relations came in 1997 when Hun Sen ousted Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranaridh, and ended a coalition government in a violent coup. While the international community condemned the move and isolated Cambodia, China not only recognized the coup’s result but showered Hun Sen with aid. Since then, Cambodia, still one of the world’s poorest countries, has welcomed Chinese trade and investment because it is not tied to good governance reforms championed by the West. Beijing in turn has viewed Phnom Penh as not only a source of energy and minerals to fuel its own development, but a useful friend to support its sovereignty claims against Southeast Asian states; a partner to address various cross-border issues like narcotics and trafficking; and a crucial ally to advance its objectives in Southeast Asia and beyond. 

China is Cambodia’s largest trading partner and investor, and its economic footprint has grown rapidly over the past two decades. Bilateral trade has increased from around $76 million in 1996 to more than $2.5 billion in 2012, and both countries have vowed to double it by 2017 (Xinhua, December 4, 2012). Between 1994 and 2011, China invested in nearly 400 projects in Cambodia totaling $9 billion dollars—initially in the manufacturing and garment sectors but increasingly in natural resources and energy (Xinhua, December 26, 2011). China also has funded upgrades of airfields and ports that could help it leverage Cambodia’s strategic location at the heart of Southeast Asia to project power into the Gulf of Thailand and the Strait of Malacca. Beijing’s economic influence is only set to grow over the next few years. Earlier this week, two Chinese firms reached a deal to build a rail line, steel plant and port worth $11 billion by 2016—by far the biggest ever investments into Cambodia (South China Morning Post, January 3). 

The relationship also has expanded into the security sphere over the last few years. In terms of law enforcement, since a cooperation agreement was inked in 2008, Yunnan province has given equipment and technical assistance to Cambodia’s National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) to crack down on drug-trafficking and terrorism along troubled border areas (Xinhua, January 1). Military-to-military ties also have blossomed, and Beijing is Cambodia’s largest provider of military aid today. Both sides signed a military cooperation pact in May 2012 where China agreed to provide Cambodia with $17 million in military aid and to construct a military training facility in the country (Xinhua, May 28, 2012). In addition, Beijing periodically signs off on loans to Phnom Penh for various military equipment and training programs, including patrol aircraft, military helicopters and a recent six-week course for Cambodian armed forces to clear landmines (Xinhua, December 13, 2012). 

Both sides also have strengthened cultural and people-to-people ties. Bilateral visits are frequent and increasingly occur at the state as well as party and provincial levels (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 22, 2011). China is Cambodia’s third biggest tourism market with around 270,000 Chinese visiting Cambodia in 2011, a number Cambodia wants to increase to one million by 2020 (Xinhua, December 4, 2012). Mandarin Chinese is the second most popular language in Cambodia after English, and Chinese schools are mushrooming nationwide (Radio Free Asia, April 25, 2012; Xinhua, October 5, 2011). China also invests significantly in emphasizing the rich history of Sino-Cambodian relations. When Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk died in China in October last year, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo personally escorted the coffin to Cambodia and national flags were flown at half-mast as they were in Phnom Penh (Xinhua, October 17, 2012). Sino-Cambodian relations also are facilitated by the country’s Cambodian Chinese population, one of its largest minority groups prominent in politics and business. 

China has used its growing influence in Cambodia to reap political benefits, often with pressure and inducements on sensitive issues perceived to affect its sovereignty. Joint statements between the two countries boosting cooperation, including the one issued after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Cambodia in April 2012, often are accompanied by reaffirmations of Phnom Penh’s steadfast commitment to the one-China policy (Xinhua, April 2, 2012). In 2009, despite international furor and some initial hesitation, Cambodia eventually repatriated 20 asylum-seeking Uighurs back to China and subsequently was rewarded $1.2 billion in aid one day later by Beijing. Most recently, Cambodia also was accused of towing Beijing’s line on territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea during its 2012 ASEAN chairmanship and even sharing internal drafts of proposed agreements with Chinese interlocutors (“China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses,” China Brief, August 3, 2012; Asia Times Online, July 27, 2012).  

Despite Beijing’s increasing clout in Cambodia, there are several limits to the relationship that could pose challenges for both sides. First, while Phnom Penh certainly is constrained by the invisible strings attached to Chinese assistance, it has cultivated other relationships to ensure it does not fall fully into Beijing’s camp. For instance, U.S.-Cambodian relations have warmed in recent years, and cooperation proceeds in the form of counterterrorism training, small-scale joint exercises and assistance via the Lower Mekong Initiative. Balancing various powers is a strategy that dates back centuries to the Khmer kings, and Hun Sen is unlikely to abandon this practice because he remembers China’s own opportunism in Cambodia’s history and remains distrustful of Beijing (Asia Times Online, July 20, 2011). 

Yet this is still a tricky balance, and it is unclear whether Cambodia will be able to execute it successfully in the next few years or whether Beijing will tolerate it. In several cases, such as Cambodia’s decision to deport the Uighurs in 2009 or its position on the South China Sea in ASEAN meetings in 2012, Phnom Penh has taken China’s side (at times with inducements) and has alienated the international community and its fellow ASEAN brethren. What if Cambodia decided in the future to take a position not entirely in line with Beijing on a given issue? Would Beijing condone this, and what would the consequences be? Sino-Cambodian relations only can mature if Cambodia can exercise its autonomy fully and China learns to respect it instead of just expecting complete deference in return for its patronage. 

Second, China’s influence in Cambodia comes at a domestic cost. Concerns about corruption, human rights violations and environmental degradation in Chinese-backed projects are growing louder and stirring up trouble for Cambodia’s rulers. 4,000 families were evicted from their homes around Boeung Kak Lake for a development project by Erdos Hongjun Investment Corporation, a case which has received high-level attention from human rights groups, ordinary Cambodians and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Phnom Penh Post, May 28, 2012). In another case, Tianjin Union Development Group, a Chinese real estate company, has come under scrutiny for transforming Botom Sakur National Park into a gambling paradise (Jakarta Globe, March 7, 2012). Both cases have become tied to growing national agitation over land rights and government inaction, which is expected to be a hot issue in general elections this July (Phnom Penh Post, June 15, 2012; Rasmei Kampuchea Daily, November 29, 2012). If domestic opposition to China’s footprint in Cambodia becomes even louder in succeeding years, it could trigger tensions within the bilateral relationship or limit prospects for cooperation. 

Third, while China’s dominant position in Cambodia is due in no small part to the regime’s continuity since the 1990s, even Hun Sen cannot last forever. Judging from his ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) overwhelming victory in last year’s commune elections, his grip on power probably will be cemented by a landslide victory in upcoming polls (Asahi Shimbun, June 5, 2012). Whether the 60-year old strongman can rule the country until age 90 as he says he will, however, is less clear (South China Morning Post, November 20, 2012). He himself has suggested that health issues may curb the longevity of his rule (Radio Free Asia, January 21, 2010). Moreover, though some have suggested Cambodians currently are willing to overlook democracy for the sake of political stability after years of genocide and civil war, history offers plenty of cases, including in nearby Myanmar, where transitions have nonetheless occurred in various forms. In a more democratic environment, there would certainly be more scrutiny on China’s footprint in Cambodia, and perhaps even a relative erosion of its influence in favor of other countries to better balance Cambodia’s foreign policy. 

Short of these limits though, few expect Beijing’s formidable influence in Cambodia to ebb anytime soon. At least for now, China, which Hun Sen famously called “the root of everything that is evil in Cambodia” in a 1988 essay, is the source of enough good in the country to be courted rather than condemned [2]. 


1. Zhou Daguan, The Customs of Cambodia, translated by Michael Smithies, Bangkok: The Siam Society, 2001.

2. Sophie Richardson, China, Cambodia and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 151.