Why China Increases Its Cambodia Engagement Despite COVID-19

China-Cambodia Map
Credit: SSYoung / CC BY-SA

Amid the pandemic, Cambodia-China relations have soared to new heights as both countries are building a community of shared future together.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Cambodia-China comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation. Both parties held their 5th meeting of intergovernmental coordination committee via video last month to discuss their free trade agreements and push forward their plan for a shared future.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on the local and international movement of people and goods, Cambodia and China continue to cement their bilateral relations and showcase their “true friendship” and support for each other through thick and thin.

Last year, Cambodia issued a statement indicating its full support of any measures deemed necessary by the Chinese authorities to ensure social security and public order in Hong Kong in the face of unprecedented protests by Hong Kong people for police accountability and broader political reforms. In February, when the outbreak of the coronavirus was at its peak, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed his interest to visit China’s Wuhan city – the epicentre of the pandemic. Although his request was denied due to potential danger from the virus, he managed to make a special visit to Beijing to show Phnom Penh’s support to China as it was trying to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In return for the Cambodian support, Beijing has reciprocated by donating medical supplies and equipment to Cambodia to help it fight COVID-19. On 23 March, China sent a team of medical experts alongside test kits, masks and protective suits to Cambodia. In late April, China donated another batch of medical supplies to Phnom Penh. Later in May, a Chinese non-governmental organization, the Blue Sky Rescue Team, sent a team of 10 volunteers and donated more medical supplies to the Kingdom. In June, more medical supplies were donated to Phnom Penh, and the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia was quoted saying that “China-Cambodia joint fight against COVID-19 is a model for international cooperation”. The Cambodian side, in return, spoke of “iron friends,” “unbreakable friendship,” and “shared future”.

In addition, in March China sent 1,000 containers of raw materials to Cambodia to prevent more garment factories from closing. Beijing also pledged, despite the pandemic and widespread international travel bans, to ship more raw materials to Cambodia – a small state considered by China as “a friend indeed.”

China’s increased aid and engagement in Cambodia prior and during the pandemic can be explained by examining Beijing’s core interests in Phnom Penh. For starters, it is about economic interests. There are many Chinese companies in Cambodia, some of which have received concessions from the Cambodian government and are able to export a lot of raw materials to China. Trade volume between the two countries reached $9.42 billion last year and $7.4 billion in 2018. About 80 per cent of the two-way trade was Cambodia’s imports from China. The two friends have pledged to increase their bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2023.

In addition to the economic interests, China’s Cambodia engagement is driven by Beijing’s key geostrategic interests, particularly the geostrategic interest regarding the South China Sea (SCS). As an example, China’s interest in Cambodia has been on public display for a few times when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping tries to reach a consensus to issue a joint communiqué that includes language about China’s growing assertiveness in the SCS. Cambodia has been criticized twice for its lack of willingness to use such language in the joint statement. In 2012, when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN, the bloc was unable to issue a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history. This incident has clearly undermined Cambodia’s image.

In the sphere of geostrategic interests as well, China’s aid, investment and engagement with Cambodia can be viewed as part of a larger strategic package. In a sense, China’s steady Cambodia engagement is to counter Vietnam’s influence in the country, especially in the Cambodian politics. This speculation is plausible given Vietnam’s historical role in the installment of the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in the 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Until now, speculations that fall along the line of anti-Vietnam sentiment are shared by many Cambodians who continue to suspect Vietnam’s unfulfilled ambition as regards the Cambodian land.

Another explanation that can be made in connection with China’s unwavering support of Cambodia is to do with China’s long-term strategic vision, that is, the realization of its “string of pearls” ambition. There have been ongoing speculations that Cambodia is likely to help China to pursue its string of pearls strategy or quest for global military network as China seeks to encircle India and balance American military presence and superiority. Notably, it was a report by The Wall Street Journal last year that brought to the fore the speculation that Cambodia and China may have signed a secret deal that allows Beijing military access to a navy base in Sihanoukville and perhaps an airport under construction in Koh Kong province. So far, these speculations have been vehemently and repeatedly denied by both the Cambodian and Chinese government. However, despite the denial, Cambodia’s image in the regional and international arena was further compromised.

Considering the above discussion, China looks set to further strengthen its ties with Cambodia amid and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Both sides have effectively reciprocated each other, making their reciprocal relationship stronger. Moreover, their ties have been strengthened by an array of interests linked to economy, politics and strategies.

Despite the engaged and cooperative bilateral ties between both countries, a word of caution for Cambodia is worth a mention. No doubt, Cambodia has to manage it relations with China and the U.S. with care. Falling further into China’s orbit is not a sustainable foreign policy approach. An inclusive foreign policy strategy through proactive engagement with other partners, particularly China’s major competitors such as Japan and the U.S., may be the way forward. Although it is difficult to pursue this strategy meaningfully, it is not impossible.

In sum, while engaging with China, Cambodia should continue to maintain and ensure good relations with other countries to avoid putting all eggs in one basket. A new vision of foreign policy grounded in the notion of conclusiveness and substantiality should be advanced and prioritized if Cambodia does not want to be caught in the middle of the strategic competition between the superpowers for primacy in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). He can be reached at kimkongheng@gmail.com.