Cambodia’s relations with its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam often top the country’s political, social and economic agenda; however, the Kingdom’s relationships with the world’s two superpowers – China and America – have been at the forefront of foreign policy talk lately and could be just as important.
China’s rapidly increasing investment in Cambodian industry has led to closer ties between the two countries; while relations with the US have been frustrated by America’s refusal to erase the “dirty debt” that Cambodia incurred during Lon Nol’s regime. While the future is uncertain, there is no doubt that both countries will continue to promote their own brand of progress in the Kingdom and around the world.
It is clear that Cambodia’s current leaders lean towards China’s brand of development, not surprising given the deep-rooted Chinese influence on the Kingdom and no-strings-attached grants that China has given to infrastructure and industry development in the past decade.
Cambodia has returned the favour by continuing to support the one-China policy, a controversial dictate stating that Taiwan and Tibet, among other countries, are under the jurisdiction of leaders in Beijing; a stance reiterated by National Assembly President Heng Samrin in a meeting with Chinese legislators earlier this month.
The United States has also been active in strengthening its ties with the Kingdom. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country to promise US cooperation and support as development partners. She also delievered a warning about heavy reliance on regional powers such as China for aid and investment.
“I think it is smart for Cambodia to be friends with many countries and to look for opportunities to cooperate with many countries,” she said in a press conference at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall. “You look for balance.”
Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo came to Cambodia days afterwards, and his pledge to cancel the Kingdom’s debt of $4.2 million and signing 16 development deals seemed to highlight his country’s deep pockets and willingness to curry favour by funding development.
To better understand the current state of relations between Cambodia and these superpowers, acording to historian Sambo Manara, it is important to look at the history of their economic and diplomatic ties. The lecturer at Pannasastra University said the two countries used Cambodia as a political football starting in the 1960s and 70s, when opposing communist and capitalist agendas had them competing for the loyalty of Cambodia’s government. Both countries failed to protect Cambodia in the ensuing years, as Lon Nol’s American-backed regime was corrupt and ineffective and both countries failed to step in to stop the Pol Pot regime until they had already massacred 1.7 million people. Since then, both countries have tried to make up for their failures, and Sambo Manara says Cambodia should maintain an independent stance to maintain positive relations with both countries.
“If we are biased to one side or in favour of one country, it can result in strife,” he said. “Cambodia’s government is mature enough to make their own foreign policy”.
“China is helping to improve economic growth and infrastructure, whereas America is enhancing education, health, human rights, governance and democracy development.”
Chea Vannath, a Phnom Penh-based political analyst, echoed these sentiments. “America contributes to freedom, democracy and human rights, which are good for the country’s security and sustainable development,” she said. “China is strong in infrastructure development that can also better people’s living standards.”
Chea Vannath said that America is more apt to disagree with government action and policy it doesn’t agree with, while China doesn’t value freedom of expression and is unlikely to interfere in Cambodian affairs.
Diep Soksereyors, 22, an international relations student at the University of Cambodia, said he agrees with the government’s actions due to China’s generous aid. “China is better than America,” he said. “We can see increasing benefits to the military, economy and politics.”
Loem Senghour, an international studies major at the Institute of Foreign Languages, has a more cautious outlook. “If Cambodia relies on China too much, human rights in the country may suffer, since China provides investment or grants without considering human rights,” he said.
“If Cambodia violates human rights, America will not assist Cambodia. But, Cambodia is a developing country and if we protect human rights too much, we cannot develop,” he said.
“We should know how to love the two countries and accept love from them,” said Sambo Manara. “If one wants human rights and democracy, we will find it for them. If the other wants a one-China policy, let’s do that for them also.”