Cambodia and China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Opportunities, Challenges and Future Directions

By Kimkong Heng, Assistant Dean of School of Graduate Studies, University of Cambodia
Sovinda PO, master’s degree student in International Relations at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai, China

The BRI and the Way Forward for Cambodia

To reap maximum benefits from this highly ambitious infrastructure development and investment initiative, Cambodia needs to work to expedite its reform processes and ensure its political stability. First and foremost, Cambodia must make sure its 2018 national election will not scare investors too much. Reports have shown a noticeable drop in real estate investment over the first quarter of 2017 prior to the Cambodian commune election in June this year and the much-anticipated and much-feared national election in July next year (May, 2017b). Should something go wrong, say, a civil war as frequently warned by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia will be at a disadvantage and lose out on what the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has to offer, not to mention other investment prospects.

Second, Cambodia has to continue to fully address many burning social issues ranging from corruption to nepotism and impunity to social injustice. Although China’s aid and loans have often arrived in Cambodia in a nostrings-attached fashion and this practice is most unlikely to cease anytime soon, it is imperative that the Cambodian government be willing to tackle the issues head-on if it wishes to see and enjoy real economic prosperity throughout the country. With corruption and other contentious issues still looming large, perhaps it could be that Cambodia will seriously lag behind its neighboring countries in terms of economic growth, public engagement and trust, social solidarity, and national reputation on the global stage. In this respect, the exciting prospects of China’s OBOR initiative would be challenged, if not diminished.

Third, Cambodia would stand to lose if it does not begin to aggressively and heavily invest in building its human capital. Having been the unfortunate victim of genocide for nearly four years from 1975 to 1979, followed by the Vietnamese occupation and protracted civil war, this war-torn country has begun its national restoration process from scratch as almost all of its intellectuals were liquidated or forced to flee the country. Although remarkable improvement has been made to its human resources over the past decades, Cambodia is still facing serious challenges regarding its skilled labor force. The lack of skilled labor could translate into employing foreign 12 professionals or technicians for high-paying jobs, while many Cambodian workers perform the unskilled ones. Thus, Cambodia would not be able to derive benefits as substantial as it should from China's project of the century.

Fourth and importantly, Cambodia has to seek to diversify its foreign policy to avoid falling completely within the Chinese sphere of influence. Jumping on the Chinese bandwagon at the expense of its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors and the US as well as the US allies would definitely not be the best option for Cambodia, although China is Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and its most generous economic and military supporter. An option for Cambodia to ensure its prosperity, sovereignty, and foreign policy autonomy could be to enhance its relations with all the countries in the region and beyond. If Cambodia does not adopt an omnidirectional foreign policy – making as many friends as possible – this small state would risk losing its independent foreign policy to China and become a true Chinese patron. Thus, it is vitally important for Cambodia to restrain itself from alienating others while relying solely on China’s unconditional aid and loans. This Chinese inclination may seem effective in the short term, but it would not be beneficial for the country in the long run.

Finally, in addition to ensuring political stability, tackling critical social issues, building up human resources, and forging flexible self-reliant foreign policy, Cambodia has to take its relationship with its ASEAN counterparts seriously and do whatever it possibly can to enhance ASEAN unity and centrality. As a member of ASEAN, Cambodia has garnered great economic and geopolitical benefits from this regional organization. Cambodia’s value and leverage ability are enhanced, Mahbubani and Sng argue, with its current ASEAN membership, without which this small state would be less capable, if not incapable, of taking advantage of its geopolitics and ASEAN privilege. In this regard, Cambodia not only needs to settle its domestic affairs but also improve its foreign policy by fostering good relations with its neighboring countries and strengthening its role and relevance in ASEAN.


It is undeniably true that Cambodia-China relations have gone a long way, dating back more than two thousand years, and therefore both countries have regarded each other as “close friends,” at least from the Cambodian side.

The fact that Cambodia chooses to bandwagon with China should be seen as a common form of Cambodia’s diplomatic behavior. As a small state in its developing stage, Cambodia is in desperate need of support and investment from all corners of the world. Embracing the BRI is apparently and rightly what Cambodia should do as the project aligns with the kingdom’s national development strategy, in particular, the Rectangular Strategy and the Industrial Development Strategy 2015-2025. In this regard, the BRI is a grand development plan Cambodia can take advantage of to realize its national aspirations to become a middle-income and high-income country in the next few decades.

However, Cambodia’s total acceptance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative can be a mixed blessing, considering a strong likelihood that Cambodia may fall into the Chinese debt trap and China’s sphere of influence. In addition, Chinese investments and development assistance, outside or inside the BRI framework, which very often target the few Cambodian elites, not the general public, may facilitate corruption and nepotism, further the exploitation of natural resources, and worsen human rights records in Cambodia. More importantly, as Cambodia enthusiastically supports China’s BRI and continue to receive China’s “no string attached” aid and loans, its foreign policy will be undermined and formulated in favor of China’s broader interests and influence in the regional and international arena.

Recognizing these challenges, this paper recommends that Cambodia actively engage in its many reform agendas, including legal, educational and health reforms, preserve and enhance political unity and stability, strive to resolve key domestic issues, strengthen human resources, and pursue independent foreign policy. To move forward and remain relevant in the Southeast Asian region, the wider Asia-Pacific region, and the global community, Cambodia needs to enhance its relations with countries in ASEAN and work hard to foster ASEAN unity and centrality, while also adopting a pragmatic open-door foreign policy – making as many friends as it possibly can.

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