How Small States Navigate U.S.-China Rivalry: The Case of Cambodia

Amid major power competition, Cambodia is preserving its strategic autonomy through ‘smart and flexible diplomacy.’

Amid growing distrust and an intensifying systemic rivalry, U.S.-China relations are at the lowest point in decades. In Washington, the last three U.S. administrations have sought to balance, challenge and counter China’s rises in Asia. In Beijing, revisionist leader Xi Jinping’s regime has an ambitious plan for “national rejuvenation” and views the United States as the major strategic threat to China’s ambitions. Countries like Cambodia are caught in between.

On the one hand, China’s receptiveness to Cambodia’s desire for political stability and economic development could enhance the domestic political standing of the regime in Phnom Penh and its strategic autonomy. On the other, Cambodia needs the United States and its allies for export destinations and to counterbalance against an over-reliance on any particular country, including China, despite disagreement between Phnom Penh and Washington on the ruling party’s treatment of dissent and domestic political arrangements.

It is undeniable that, as a small state, Cambodia has less room to maneuver amid today’s unprecedented geopolitical competition and dynamic regional order. Still, the principles of non-interference, permanent neutrality, non-alignment, peaceful coexistence with neighbors, territorial integrity and national sovereignty, as enshrined in Article 53 of Cambodian constitution, continue to serve as a roadmap for Cambodia’s foreign policy direction.

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