Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Cambodia has explicitly expressed its support for Ukraine and condemned Russia. In March 2022, Cambodia was one of the co-sponsors of a UN resolution condemning Russia. And in October, Cambodia voted in favour of the UN General Assembly (UNGA)’s resolution condemning Russia over the annexation of Ukraine’s territory.
Cambodia's clear stance against invasion
Cambodia has also offered humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainian people. In early November 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged in a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to send Cambodian demining experts to help remove landmines laid by Russian troops in Ukraine.
Cambodia’s diplomatic support for Ukraine stems from the war reinforcing security concerns for small states...
And in its capacity as ASEAN chair in 2022, Cambodia released a statement expressing its concerns over the situation in Ukraine and urging both parties to solve the conflict via peaceful means. Hun Sen also pledged to support Ukraine’s goal of becoming a “sectoral dialogue partner” with ASEAN, which would bring it a step closer to the full “dialogue partnership” the grouping has with countries like Russia, China and the US.
It has been said that Cambodia’s diplomatic support for Ukraine stems from the war reinforcing security concerns for small states like Cambodia, sparking fears of invasion and meddling in a smaller country’s domestic affairs by big powers.
Some commentators have also said that Cambodia’s decision to support the UNGA’s resolution condemning Russia was due to the “lobbying efforts” of Western countries and the US. Cambodia’s position is aligned well with the US and Western countries, who perceive Russian military action as illegal, and have imposed various sanctions on Russia and provided material support to Ukraine.
In April 2022, the US and Western countries sanctioned Russia’s state-owned banks, businesses and Russian elite families by freezing their assets, prohibiting investment in Russia, and banning business transactions with Russian state-owned enterprises including manufacturing, energy, retail and consulting firms. On 24 February 2023, the US and EU imposed new sanctions on Russia limiting the exporting of advanced technology and goods to Russia. The sanctions are aimed to put pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s territory.
Overall, trade relations between China and Russia have been surging.
China’s support critical for Russia’s military operation
In contrast, China, Cambodia’s ironclad friend and biggest donor, has expressed an ambiguous stance toward Ukraine’s war. China has followed some steps of the US and Western countries by suspending some trade relations with Russia.
For instance, in February 2022, China’s state-owned banks stopped providing finance to purchase Russian commodities. In March of the same year, Sinopec Group, a Chinese state-owned company, suspended its gas and petrochemical investment in Russia. However, China also appeared to deepen some aspects of trade relations with Russia, thereby reducing the US and the West’s sanctions on Russia.
Overall, trade relations between China and Russia have been surging. Bilateral trade between the two countries was only US$146.87 billion in 2021, but rose to US$190 billion in 2022, representing an increase of 30%. The increase in trade is mostly surging in China’s imports from Russia, which increased from US$78.97 billion to US$114 billion in 2022.
More fundamentally, China also increased its import of Russian crude oil which grew from 79.6 million tonnes in 2021 to 86.2 million tonnes in 2022. The number indicates that China is helping to weaken the effect of US and Western sanctions on Russia.
Diplomatically, while China speaks of respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity, specifically mentioning that in its 12-point peace plan, China has so far not supported UN resolutions condemning and demanding Russian troops to leave Ukraine’s border.
In October 2022, China abstained from a UN resolution condemning Russia’s illegal military actions and calling for new borders demarcated by Russia not to be recognised. In February 2023, China abstained from voting at the UNGA demanding that Russia leave Ukrainian territory. Evidently, China’s support is very critical for Russia’s military operation in Ukraine.
Currently, the Ukraine war has become a new frontline of US-China rivalry in which the US and Western countries have not only provided arms support to Ukraine but are becoming suspicious of China’s role in the war. In February 2023, US intelligence accused China of considering sending drones and ammunition to Russia. Similarly, NATO’s chief also expressed his concerns that China may be planning to assist Russia militarily. So far there has been no evidence suggesting that China is providing military support to Russia; however, China is providing diplomatic support to Russia.
In early March 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to Belarus and met with President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus has been playing a critical role in supporting Russia in the war such as providing air bases, logistical support, supply lines and also providing arms to Russia. From March to September 2022, Russia received over 65,000 tonnes of ammunition, 100 TM-72A tanks, and 20 armoured vehicles from Belarus.
A week earlier, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, also visited Russia, signalling the strength of bilateral relations. It is expected that Xi will visit Russia soon. There were reports saying that China’s top government officials’ visit to Russia and Belarus mainly discussed the peace plan in Ukraine and the strengthening of relations between China, Russia and Belarus.
Ironically, however, China does not seem to have met with Ukrainian leaders to discuss the peace plan. Zelenskyy apparently expressed interest in meeting Xi after China put forth its peace plan. Latest reports have said that Xi may be planning to speak with Zelenskyy soon.
90.3% of Cambodians approved of the government’s decision to support Ukraine.
Cambodians behind the decision
As China becomes more involved in the war, Cambodia’s position on the war will also be called into question. Currently, Cambodia appears to support China’s peace plan in the Ukraine war. For example in March 2023, Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn reiterated China’s significant role in the Ukraine war and he also stated that China’s decision in the war will have consequences for the global world order.
Despite these statements, Cambodia is unlikely to shift its position on Ukraine. Firstly, Cambodia’s position to support Ukraine has been viewed favorably by the Cambodian people. Hence, it is important for the Cambodian People's Party (CPP)-led government to maintain its current approach as it will be CPP’s trump card to gain popular support particularly for the upcoming election.
In a survey report published by ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in 2023, it was found that 51.6% of respondents have either strongly approved or approve of their government’s response to Ukraine’s war. The number appeared to be much higher in Cambodia, in which 90.3% of Cambodians approved of the government’s decision to support Ukraine. The Cambodian government has expressed its explicit support to Ukraine while also condemning Russia’s invasion.
Secondly, if Cambodia intended to shift its position regarding the war, particularly softening its approach toward Russia, it would have done so following Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to China along with senior government officials on 9-11 February. The visit would have been an opportunity for Cambodia and China to exchange ideas on the war and for China to lobby Cambodia.
However, on 23 February, the Cambodian government voted to support the UN General Assembly resolution to condemn Russia and demand that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukrainian territory. This indicates that China neither lobbied Cambodia nor did Cambodia feel the need to align its position with China in changing its perceptions of Russia. Against this backdrop, Cambodia’s position in the war remains unchanged despite Cambodia’s support of China’s peace plan on the Ukraine war.
Overall, Cambodia remains set on supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia despite China increasing its involvement in the war. Cambodia’s decision to support Ukraine can be seen as a logical and rational decision which helps to increase the Kingdom’s diplomatic leverage regionally and globally.
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