Cambodia is in a unique and challenging position amid the growing strategic competition between the United States and China. Since 2012, when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN, the country has been accused of supporting China’s strategic interests.
Although Cambodia has claimed that it pursues a neutral foreign policy, its actions seem to contradict this particularly as it relates to China’s actions in the South China Sea. Cambodia’s domestic politics is vital in explaining Cambodia’s embrace of China and its foreign policy that seems to tilt heavily towards Beijing. When studying or explaining Cambodia’s troubling tilt toward China, it is impossible to neglect domestic politics and political struggles inside the country. These are the driving forces behind Cambodia’s close alignment with China, a country that does not mind Cambodia’s recent democratic backsliding.
The contestation between Cambodia’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the now-disbanded opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), can explain Cambodia’s China engagement. While the opposition party appears to rely on Western countries for support, the ruling party tends to look to China for political and financial backing, especially when Western governments and institutions such as the U.S. and the European Union criticize Cambodia’s authoritarian turn.