China and Cambodia have traditionally been close neighbours, and the ironclad friendship between the two countries has stood the test of time and is full of vitality.

The year 2023 marked the 65th anniversary of the establishment of China-Cambodia diplomatic ties and the “China-Cambodia Friendship Year”, as well as the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

During the year, the two nations had frequent high-level exchanges, charting the course for the future development of bilateral relations. 

In February 2023, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a successful visit to China, and the two sides agreed to build a “Diamond Hexagon” cooperation framework, starting from six major areas of politics, production capacity, agriculture, energy, security and people-to-people exchange, and to build a high-quality, high-level and high-standard China-Cambodia Community with a Shared Future in the New Era. 

In September, Prime Minister Hun Manet visited China for the first time after taking office, and the two sides agreed to deepen strategic synergy between the BRI and Pentagonal Strategy and focus on the China-Cambodia “Diamond Hexagon” cooperation framework, with a view to deepening their comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation and achieving high-quality and sustainable common development. 

In October, Manet attended the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in China, and the two sides agreed to implement the Action Plan on Building a China-Cambodia Community with a Shared Future in the New Era, enrich the China-Cambodia “Diamond Hexagon” cooperation framework, jointly build the “Industrial Development Corridor” and the “Fish and Rice Corridor”, and push forward the implementation of more people-centred projects. 

Under the strategic guidance of the leaders of the two countries, China-Cambodia economic and trade cooperation had been further upgraded with fruitful results in 2023.

The scale of bilateral trade between China and Cambodia kept expanding

The dividends of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the China-Cambodia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) continued to be unleashed, and China has remained Cambodia’s largest trading partner for 12 consecutive years.

According to the Chinese statistics, from January to November 2023, the bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to $13.42 billion. China imported $1.85 billion from Cambodia, a year-on-year increase of 11.3%; the ratio was highly commendable among China’s trade with ASEAN countries.

Exports of Cambodian agricultural products to China had been growing with the “accelerator button” on. In 2023, Cambodian peppercorns, edible aquatic animals and wild aquatic products successfully got into the Chinese market.

The two countries signed protocols on exporting Cambodian fresh coconut fruits to China, and accelerated the entry of other high-quality Cambodian agricultural products into the Chinese market, such as bird’s nests, deli meat products, crocodiles and so on.

According to the Cambodian statistics, China was the largest export destination for Cambodian rice, bananas and longan in 2023, with about 30% of Cambodian rice and most of Cambodian bananas and longan exported to the Chinese market. 

The Cambodian side actively utilised the 6th China International Import Expo (CIIE), the 133rd and 134th China Import and Export Fair (Canton Fair), the 20th China-ASEAN Expo and other important exhibitions, as well as cross-border e-commerce platforms, to promote Cambodian featured products and achieved satisfactory results.

The Chinese side also organised the Capacity Building Programme for Implementing the Rules of Origin of the China-ASEAN FTA, which greatly improved Cambodian officials’ understanding and application of rules of origin, and would facilitate more Cambodian high-quality commodities to be exported to China and ASEAN market.

Investment cooperation made great contributions to Cambodia’s economic growth 

According to the Cambodian statistics, China has been the Kingdom’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) for many consecutive years. Chinese enterprises have invested in Cambodia in a wide range of fields, including transportation, electricity, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism development, special economic zones and information and communications. The statistics show that in 2023, Chinese companies invested more than $3 billion in Cambodia. 

In May, the Sihanoukville Special Economy Zone (SSEZ) held an exhibition celebrating the 10th anniversary of the BRI and its achievements.

In October, Siem Reap Angkor International Airport, the first international airport implemented by Chinese enterprises overseas in build-operate-transfer (BOT) model, was officially put into operation. 

In November, the first expressway in Cambodia, namely the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway, which was invested and built by Chinese enterprises in the BOT model, celebrated its 1st anniversary of safe and smooth operation, and the traffic volume in 2023 reached 4.92 million.

In the same month, the flow-cutting ceremony was held for the Upper Tatay Hydropower Station, another project implemented by Chinese enterprises under the BOT model. 

As of the end of November 2023, Chinese enterprises had built and put into operation 10 hydropower stations and two thermal power stations in Cambodia, with the total installed capacity accounting for 63.8% of national total.

The SSEZ had attracted a cumulative investment of $2.27 billion, introduced a total of 180 enterprises from China, Europe, the US, Southeast Asia and other countries and regions, creating about 30,000 jobs for local people.

More projects that benefit people’s livelihoods made solid progress

The Cambodian statistics show that China helped Cambodia build or upgrade nearly 4,000km of roads and nine grand bridges.

At the beginning of 2023, the construction of Mekong River Bridge in Kratie province and the upgrading and expansion of National Road 7 (from the Skun roundabout to Kampong Cham town) also commenced. 

In May, the 500kV Backbone and Sub-region Transmission Line Project was successfully completed, which was of strategic significance to the development of Cambodia’s electric power.

At the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the Cambodian athletes achieved the best performance in history with the help of the China-Aid Project on Sport Technical Assistance. 

In August, Phnom Penh’s Ring Road 3, invested with China’s Preferential Buyer’s Credit, was officially opened to traffic, effectively relieving the traffic pressure in the capital’s urban area. In October, the China-Cambodia Traditional Chinese Medicine Centre was unveiled at the China-Cambodia Friendship Preah Kossamak Hospital.

Furthermore, throughout the year 2023, China trained nearly 1,200 people from Cambodia through bilateral, multilateral, degree and non-degree programmes, covering multiple fields such as economics and trade, farming, forestry, livestock and fishing, public administration and social organisation, etc.

‘The vastness of the ocean is made up of thousands of rivers, and we should hoist the sail when the wind is fair’

2024 is the opening year for the implementation of the Action Plan on Building a China-Cambodia Community with a Shared Future in the New Era, as well as the China-Cambodia Year of People-to-People Exchanges.

China and Cambodia share broad prospects for economic and trade cooperation. China is ready to work closely with Cambodia to continue to implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, by further tapping the potential of trade cooperation, expanding investment cooperation in emerging areas such as digital economy and green development, enhancing trade and investment facilitation and connectivity, and promoting more “small yet smart” and landmark projects. 

China is deeply convinced that with the joint efforts of the two countries, the connotation of the China-Cambodia “Diamond Hexagon” cooperation framework will continue to be enriched, and new impetus will be injected into the China-Cambodia community with a shared future in the new era, thus bringing more benefits to the two countries and peoples. 

Zhong Jie is counsellor of the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh.

All views expressed in this article are his own.