Several experts in international relations and political science have endorsed the recent agreement between Cambodian and Chinese leaders to align the Kingdom’s Pentagonal Strategy with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The agreement was announced in a joint statement on September 16, during Prime Minister Hun Manet’s first state visit to China from September 14-17, according to the outcome of the visit.

Jean-Francois Tain, Minister Delegate attached to the Prime Minister in charge of foreign affairs and international cooperation, told reporters upon his return to Phnom Penh on September 17 that international relations in the present time differ from those of the Cold War era.

“International ties are no longer based on ideologies or purely on politics, as they were during the Cold War. Current foreign relations stand on the foundation of economic interests,” he said.

“Cambodia must not be hesitant to forge ties with anywhere that can provide economic and trade benefits which enable the Kingdom to develop and move forward. Cambodia does not regard any country as its enemy, so foreign relations have our interests as their foundation,” he added.

He saw several positive economic gains from the combination of the BRI and the Pentagonal Strategy, noting that Cambodia stands to gain benefits from China more than the other way around, in terms of aligning the strategies.

Tain explained that the prime minister’s visit had three major areas of focus – political, diplomatic and economic – but was also a celebration of the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and China.

He also elaborated on the overall feeling of the visit, saying that both Manet and the Chinese leaders he met with focussed more on trade than politics.

“Neither side just sat and discussed politics and geopolitics. I think 70 per cent of their talks were on cooperation in economy and trade for the mutual benefit of both nations and improving people’s livelihoods,” he said.

“Cambodia is not, as some people have suggested, moving closer toward being a Chinese satellite. Cambodia is an independent state,” he added.

He said China is the Kingdom’s top foreign development aid provider, followed by Japan and all countries in EU combined, which measured second and third respectively. Chinese investment is also on top of the list in Cambodia.

“In short, China plays a big role in Cambodia’s development path,” he said.

Seun Sam, an international relations researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, lauded the strategic alignment, noting that the country has been a significant participant in the BRI for many years.

“The new policy by the prime minister, combined with the pre-existing BRI, will drive development,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that the implementation should be gradual and careful.

Sam added that both programmes aim to secure loans to develop infrastructure and meet the countries’ national economic goals.

Em Sovannara, a lecturer in political science, also welcomed the bilateral agreement, but urged the government to first strengthen its internal capacities.

“Previous cooperation with China saw [us] exporting just over $2 billion, significantly less than what China gained. Domestic production mechanisms need to be strengthened,” he cautioned.

He suggested that the nation maintain a neutral stance in its relations with the EU and US to sidestep diplomatic and trade pressure.

“I believe Cambodia can adapt its Pentagonal Strategy to synergise with the BRI for economic growth,” said Sovannara.

The Pentagonal Strategy, unveiled by Manet when taking office in August, serves as the administration’s political programme for 2023-28. It focuses on human capital development, economic diversification, increased competitiveness, private sector and employment growth, sustainability and digital development.

The BRI, initiated by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to connect China with Europe and other countries through infrastructure development in transport, energy, trade and communication sectors.