Cambodia’s aim in trade deals: keep the US and Japan close, but China closer

Phnom Penh is negotiating a raft of free-trade agreements, but the pacts are not expected to lessen its reliance on Beijing

When Cambodia and China announced in August that they had negotiated a free-trade agreement (FTA) in just under a year, some analysts said it was a sign Beijing would further cement its economic influence on the Southeast Asian nation – even as Phnom Penh was engaged in other efforts to diversify its trade game and seek new partners.

Since overtaking Japan as Cambodia’s biggest aid donor in 2010, China’s influence in the country has grown steadily through an influx of investment, workers and tourists. It now supplies about 40 per cent of Cambodia’s foreign direct investment and holds half of its public external debt, valued at US$7 billion in 2018, according to World Bank figures.

China has also overtaken the European Union as the largest importer of Cambodian rice, and the FTA came with pledges from Beijing of US$140 million in loans and grants for infrastructure projects.

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