China-Cambodia relations

Almost all signboards in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville are in Chinese. (Kwong Kai Chung/SPH Media)

The revival of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s ‘Gold Rush’ city

In this fourth instalment of a seven-part Lianhe Zaobao-Business Times series on China and ASEAN, we look at the role of Chinese investors in the rise, fall and recovery of Cambodia’s Sihanoukville province.
Theary Seng, a US-Cambodian lawyer and activist who is facing treason and incitement charges, poses in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court ahead of her hearing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 3 May 2022. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Why Cambodia is leaning towards China and not the US

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.
Lion dance heads are displayed at a temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 21 January 2022. (Cindy Liu/Reuters)

Cambodians welcome yet are wary of the new Chinese

The new Chinese of Cambodia, namely Chinese migrants who arrived in the country after the 1990s, have reinfornced the dominance of the ethnic Chinese in Cambodia's politico-economic order. The findings of a preliminary online survey of 100 respondents conducted in February 2022 show that Cambodians generally perceive the new Chinese positively but social tensions between Cambodians and the new Chinese are high as well.
A vendor pushes a bicycle loaded with brushes and brooms for sale along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 10 February 2022. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

How will Cambodia manage the ASEAN chairmanship and China relations?

Though small, Cambodia is a state with agency, says Cambodian researcher Chheang Vannarith. The country has shown that it can stand up for what it believes in at key moments, such as when it decided to co-sponsor the UNGA resolution demanding Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. As ASEAN chair for 2022, it seeks to bridge differences, and even if it has the image of being dominated by close friend China, this does not mean that it will do its every bidding.
Motorists refill their vehicles with petrol at a gas station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 3 March 2022. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Kidnapped and abducted, Chinese nationals are falling victim to cross-border crimes in Cambodia

The case of Li Yayuanlun, a Chinese national who was kidnapped and forced to work as a “blood slave” by a gang of online scammers in Cambodia, sent shock waves through China. While the Cambodian police have questioned the veracity of Li's story, this incident nonetheless reflects the transnational illegal activities and violent crimes involving Chinese nationals in Cambodia.
People walk along the riverside in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on 19 November 2021. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Is Chinese support the main reason for Cambodia's success with pandemic control?

Cambodia, a lower-middle-income country, has enjoyed relative success in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Approximately 88% of the entire Cambodian population has been vaccinated, which makes it ranked 6th globally and only behind Singapore in ASEAN. Some have credited Cambodia’s success as a result of Chinese support, but academic Bradley Murg thinks that many other reasons are just as important.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (second from right) gestures as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (centre, left) looks on as they attend a handover ceremony of the Morodok Techo National Stadium, funded by China's grant aid under its Belt and Road Initiative, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 12 September 2021. (Tang Chhin Sothy/Pool/AFP)

How China became Cambodia's important ally and largest donor

While Cambodia is aware that its close relations with China may leave it vulnerable in many ways, it seems to think that this is still the better bet in light of shaky relations with the US and a historical distrust of Vietnam.
A woman walks past a closed shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 25 June 2021. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Is Cambodia overly dependent on China?

Sokvy Rim warns Cambodia against being over-reliant on China. As the saying goes, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. As the US did in the past with policies that contributed to the rise of the Pol Pot regime, China could abandon Cambodia or take actions against its interests. What would Cambodia do then?
A food delivery motorist rides on a street as deliveries rise due to lockdown restrictions introduced to try to halt a surge in cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Phnom Penh on 26 April 2021. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Japan passes China in the sprint to win Cambodian hearts and minds

Since 2010, Japan’s foreign policy toward Cambodia includes a new geopolitical dimension of balancing China’s influence in Cambodia, including strategies such as non-interference in Cambodia’s domestic affairs and providing development assistance that aligns with the Cambodian government’s development plan, focusing on infrastructure, human capital development, and agriculture. Japan has been relatively successful given the Cambodian population’s mixed reactions to China’s engagement in Cambodia. And it seems that Cambodia will continue to benefit from Japan's balancing-China strategy, as long as China-Japan rivalry stays manageable.