Celebrating 65 years of diplomatic ties between Cambodia and China, Prime Minister Hun Sen embarked on a notable visit to Beijing at the beginning of February.
This landmark year has been proclaimed as the ‘Year of Cambodian-Chinese Friendship’, symbolising a shared vision for the future.
This enduring bond, often described as a ‘diamond cooperation’, has consistently been nurtured, reaping benefits for the citizens of both nations. Yet, the winds of change are blowing in Cambodia.
On August 7, King Norodom Sihamoni announced, through a royal decree, the appointment of Hun Manet as Prime Minister, with the formation of a fresh government slated for August 22 following a vote of confidence at the National Assembly.
This transition has sparked conversations about the trajectory of Cambodia-China relations. Speculations abound on whether Hun Manet’s leadership might herald a new chapter in this alliance.
Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, spoke with The Post, offering insights on this dynamic.
What foreign policy direction can we expect from the new government, and will it maintain the legacy of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration?
Kin Phea: Cambodia has embraced a steadfast policy of neutrality and non-alignment. Under Article 53 of the Constitution, the Kingdom of Cambodia commits to peaceful coexistence with its neighbouring countries and others worldwide.
I believe the foreign policy of the seventh mandate, guided by Hun Manet, is practical. It ensures Cambodia’s strategic interests. While the overall direction remains the same, we might see more adaptable, intelligent, and improved methods.
How do you envisage the relationship between Hun Manet’s government and the Chinese Communist Party’s administration?
Kin Phea: The bond between Cambodia and China remains robust under the new government. I believe that Cambodia-China relations will continue to be strong, given China’s unwavering political, economic, and strategic support, making it an essential ally for Cambodia.
Over the years, Cambodia and China have elevated their partnership to its pinnacle. They have transitioned from being strategic partners to comprehensive strategic ones. They have even agreed to establish a joint Cambodian-Chinese community. And in February 2023, they took their collaboration a step further, dubbing it the ‘diamond’ cooperation.
How do China and Cambodia perceive the benefits and significance of their bilateral relationship, given the current geopolitical landscape and future prospects?
Kin Phea: Cambodia and China share a mutually beneficial relationship, spanning political, strategic, economic, and diplomatic realms. A smaller nation like Cambodia often seeks strong ties with global superpowers. For us, China serves as that vital political ally, helping balance our foreign policy.
From an economic perspective, the ties run deep. We rely on Chinese investments and trade. Their support, particularly in developing infrastructure like bridges and roads, has been invaluable. When it comes to tourism, Chinese visitors top the charts. Moreover, the growing personal connections between our peoples are promising.
China, too, recognises the value of having Cambodia by its side. With the United States focusing on the Indo-Pacific, China is keen on cementing deep alliances and strategic partnerships.
Furthermore, Cambodia’s role in ASEAN is pivotal. It serves as a balance of power within the group. Since ASEAN decisions hinge on consensus, closer ties to either China or the United States need the nod from all member nations. By building relationships with every ASEAN country, both the U.S. and China help ensure a balance in the region.
Given the Sino-US tensions, how might the next government recalibrate its foreign relations? There’s speculation that the next government could improve ties with the West. How might this impact Cambodian-Chinese relations, especially if Cambodia leans closer to China?
Kin Phea: The Cambodian government has been diligently working on diversifying its diplomatic ties with other nations. Given the tussle between global superpowers, Cambodia really ought to place foreign relations at the forefront, above its strategic priorities.
Cambodia should stand firm, independent of alignment with China or the US. Our prime concerns are peace, political stability, growth, enhancing our global stature, and broadening our influence in regional and global matters.
Cambodia shouldn’t favour one nation over another but should always keep its national interests at heart.
No matter who leads our government, our ties with China, the US, and Europe remain indispensable. Each of these has brought distinct advantages to Cambodia.
China remains our steadfast ally. But with the US, Europe, and other Western nations, there’s room to solidify, repair, and enrich our relationships.
In your view, what is the optimal foreign policy stance amid the competing interests of superpowers such as China and the United States, the Russia-Europe conflict, and India’s rising influence?
Kin Phea: Cambodia faces the delicate task of balancing its ties between global superpowers, China and the United States. We need to enhance our relationship with the US while continuing to bolster our strong bond with China.
Reflecting on the tense situation between Russia and Europe, particularly concerning Ukraine, Cambodia should follow the approach of Hun Sen. Cambodia has always stood by international law and the UN Charter. We didn’t endorse any nation’s use of force against another sovereign state, nor did we support secession, especially in the Russia-Ukraine context.
For Cambodia, balancing relationships with historical ally Russia and the development-rich Europe is crucial. We shouldn’t antagonise the West. We aim to communicate to the world that our foreign policy is driven by our national interests. India’s neutral stance during the Russia-Ukraine conflict can serve as an inspiration.
With the rise of India as a significant power, Cambodia should take note. India, with its massive population exceeding 1.6 billion, presents a vast market. We should be exploring free trade agreements with them. Moreover, fostering good ties with the world’s largest democracy can only benefit our global standing.
We should also look towards enhancing ties with South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. South Korea is a significant investor, while Japan plays a pivotal role in Cambodia’s relations with the US. Both Australia and New Zealand are invaluable for developing our human resources.