The debate about China’s rapidly growing global investment and development financing footprint has focused on deciphering Chinese intentions — whether China aims to revise or maintain the US-led ‘liberal international order’. A manifestation of this approach is the controversial ‘debt trap diplomacy’ trope — the idea that China is using its money to ensnare recipients in unequal relationships that secure Chinese geostrategic interests.
But the role of recipient governments in promoting large-scale Chinese projects and shaping their impact is often neglected.
Cambodia is a case in point. Observers often view Cambodia as China’s staunchest ally in Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s refusal, when ASEAN Chair in 2012, to release a communique criticising China’s conduct in the South China Sea was seen as evidence of this.