Can Cambodia’s Future Foreign Policy Diverge from China?

Whether Cambodia can truly forge a foreign policy that stands apart from China will impact the next generation of Cambodian leaders at home and abroad.

Cambodia has been portrayed as China’s proxy for decades because of its pro-Beijing stance and its economy’s deep dependence on its larger neighbour. Cambodia treasures the ironclad friendship. China contributed to 44 per cent of the country’s total foreign direct investment between 1994 and 2021. China is Cambodia’s largest trading partner with two-way trade volume recording a substantial rise in 2022, despite supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and war in Ukraine. Since 2012, China has surpassed Japan as Cambodia’s largest official development aid and soft loan provider.

When Cambodia took over the ASEAN Chair in late 2021, many expected that the country would repeat the 2012 fiasco when ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement on the regional grouping’s position on the South China Sea. Cambodia bore the blame for scuttling the joint statement.

Contrary to these expectations, Cambodia was able to showcase a somewhat independent foreign policy and steered away from China’s direct influence during its 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship. This is a welcome development for a country just finding its feet in international diplomacy.

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