Beyond Diplomacy: The Military And Political Dimensions Of Cambodia-China Ties

An exploration of the multifaceted relationship between China and Cambodia, delving into both military and political aspects that extend beyond traditional diplomatic channels.

Cambodia and China have developed a strong friendship, often characterized as “ironclad,” despite facing various challenges and obstacles. This bond is rooted in the five principles of peaceful coexistence, emphasizing mutual respect, non-aggression, non-interference, equality, and peaceful coexistence.

Politically, Cambodia stands out as one of China’s oldest and closest partners, engaging in regular high-level visits to strengthen their ties. Cambodia’s steadfast endorsement of the one-China principle, affirming the existence of a single China with Taiwan as an integral part, serves to solidify this alliance.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has emphasized the country’s commitment to the one-China principle, highlighting the historical adherence of former king and Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk. This underscores a sense of continuity and national policy alignment in Cambodia’s stance towards its partnership with China.



The historical roots of China-Cambodia relations can be traced back to the 13th century when Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan visited the Kingdom of Angkor. However, it was during the Second World War and Cambodia’s post-independence era in the 1950s that the two countries developed closer ties.

The backdrop of the global struggle between communism and democracy after World War II influenced Cambodia’s pursuit of relations with China. Cambodia, led by Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk, declared neutrality but sought ties with China to counterbalance the influence of neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand and South Vietnam, which supported anti-Sihanouk rebels.

China isolated due to its adoption of communism, sought Cambodia’s support in international forums such as the United Nations, particularly in its bid for a UN seat against Taiwan. China also aimed to secure Cambodia as an ally amid increasing U.S. influence in Southeast Asia.

On July 19, 1958, formal diplomatic relations were established between Beijing and Phnom Penh after Cambodia recognized the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China, rejecting Taiwan’s claims of independent statehood.

Relations faced a setback in 1967 when Sihanouk discovered China’s support for a communist movement in Cambodia. Tensions arose, but a meeting between Zhou and the Cambodian ambassador in Beijing helped mitigate the discord.

In 1970, when Cambodia’s monarchy was overthrown in a coup led by Marshal Lon Nol, the Chinese Communist Party, under Chairman Mao, wholeheartedly supported Sihanouk’s exiled government and its opposition to the newly formed Khmer Republic. This historical context sets the stage for the evolving dynamics of China-Cambodia relations over the years.


Breaking and Mending of Relations

The dynamics of China-Cambodia relations underwent significant shifts in the late 20th century. Vietnam’s invasion of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979 marked the removal of the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge from power, leading to a decline in China’s influence on Cambodia. For over a decade, a puppet government controlled by Hanoi diminished China’s sway in the region.

Despite ongoing support for the deposed Khmer Rouge, the Vietnam-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government took measures to counteract Chinese influence. The propagation of Chinese culture was banned, Chinese schools were shut down, and ethnic Chinese minorities were compelled to learn their native language in secret. Leaders like Prime Minister Hun Sen, in the 1980s, openly criticized China as the cause of Cambodia’s problems.

However, a pivotal shift occurred in 1997 when Prime Minister Hun Sen successfully launched a coup to remove Prince Norodom Rannariddh from Cambodia’s leadership. Facing international isolation and donor assistance withdrawal due to political harassment, Hun Sen turned towards China for support, marking the beginning of a new phase in China-Cambodia relations.

China, which had seen Rannariddh as too supportive of Taiwan’s independence, swiftly recognized and welcomed Hun Sen’s government. In the aftermath of the coup, China provided significant assistance, including a U.S. $6 million aid package and a subsequent loan of U.S. $2.8 million for Cambodia’s military. Economic ties between the two nations strengthened, with Chinese investment increasing from U.S. $36 million to U.S. $113 million by July 1998.

Despite these developments, Taiwan remained a major investor in Cambodia, and initially, Hun Sen resisted reducing relations with Taipei to appease Beijing. However, in February 1999, Hun Sen’s visit to China marked a turning point. He returned with an interest-free loan of U.S. $200 million and a pledge of U.S. $18.3 million in aid from Beijing. This visit was hailed as a “new high” in China-Cambodia relations, emphasizing the significance of the evolving partnership between the two nations.


Economy Relations

Economically, China is a pivotal player, being Cambodia’s top foreign investor and a significant donor. Chinese investment, particularly in infrastructure and development sectors, has seen substantial growth, reflecting the strengthening economic ties between the two nations. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been a focal point, with Cambodia endorsing and actively participating in this initiative, fostering collaboration in various fields.

Culturally, Chinese values have become ingrained in Cambodian society, forming the foundation for robust people-to-people ties. This cultural integration has contributed to the continuous growth of friendly cooperation. The bilateral relationship has deepened over the years, evolving from a “comprehensive partnership of cooperation” in 2006 to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2010.

Cambodia played an early and active role in endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative, signing agreements with China to jointly build the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In 2019, an Action Plan was signed, outlining measures for building a China-Cambodia community of shared future. The free trade agreement signed in 2020 marked a new era of comprehensive strategic cooperation.

China’s support for Cambodia during the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine assistance, has strengthened the ties between the two nations. Cambodia’s reliance on China for vaccines and its post-pandemic economic recovery highlights the strategic partnership between the two countries.

On the South China Sea issue, Cambodia has advocated for a peaceful resolution through the ASEAN-China mechanism, reinforcing regional stability and cooperative relations. Multilaterally, Cambodia maintains good relations with China under various frameworks, including ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, and the Lancang-Mekong cooperation.

The “ironclad friendship” between Cambodia and China contributes to the broader China-ASEAN cooperation, fostering mutual understanding, trust, and regional stability. Despite global challenges, their comprehensive strategic partnership continues to diversify and strengthen, with a focus on addressing common challenges and achieving mutual benefits. The relationship is poised to deepen further, marking a new stage in China-ASEAN cooperation.


Defence Ties

The evolving defence relations between Cambodia and China have significant implications for regional dynamics, particularly in the context of Cambodia’s historical defence ties with the United States. Following a shift in Cambodia’s defence relations in 2010, China has increasingly filled the void left by the strained ties with the United States. China’s involvement includes providing military equipment, such as trucks and uniforms, to Cambodia.

In recent years, China has expanded its support by assisting Cambodia in developing its naval capabilities, particularly at the Ream Naval Base. Situated near the Gulf of Thailand and in proximity to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, the Ream Naval Base’s infrastructure development raises security concerns for Vietnam. The deepening of waters around the base enables larger warships, including those from China, to operate in the area.

Additionally, the development of radar and surveillance capabilities near the base has raised alarms. A government document indicates the allocation of land, including parts of Ream National Park, to the Cambodian Ministry of National Defence for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Air Defence Unit and a naval radar system.

This situation underscores the complex geopolitical landscape in the region, with strategic moves and defence developments by one country having ripple effects on neighbouring nations. The lack of transparency adds a layer of tension to an already sensitive situation.


Trade Relations

The visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Cambodia in October 2016 marked a significant milestone in the bilateral relations between the two countries. During this visit, both sides entered into 31 agreements, illustrating the depth and breadth of their cooperation. The agreements included measures such as forgiving 600 million yuan of Cambodia’s debt, boosting bilateral trade, encouraging Chinese companies to undertake major infrastructure projects in Cambodia, and enhancing collaboration in various sectors like capacity building, investment, agriculture, and water resources.

The ties between China and Cambodia witnessed tangible growth, with bilateral trade increasing from $4.4 billion in the year of the visit to $5 billion the following year. As of July 2020, China had provided nearly $600 million in aid to Cambodia, particularly focusing on infrastructure development, education, and healthcare. These initiatives aimed to foster Cambodia’s economic growth and social development. China’s support, both tactically and deliberately, has solidified Cambodia’s position as China’s closest and most loyal ally in Southeast Asia


China’s Influence on Cambodian Politics

The dissolution of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the CNRP, in November 2017, marked a significant turning point in the country’s political landscape. The Supreme Court cited an alleged foreign-backed plot to overthrow the government as the reason for dissolving the CNRP. This move resulted in the loss of all 55 parliamentary seats held by the CNRP, a significant number of commune council seats, and the barring of 118 key party members from politics for five years.

The crackdown on the opposition was part of Cambodia’s shift from democracy towards authoritarianism, and China’s influence in this process goes beyond financial support for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. China has played a role in replicating its development model in Cambodia. With Chinese backing, Hun Sen not only swiftly dealt with the opposition but has also adopted the “China model” over the years.

The influence of China is evident in various aspects, including the influx of Chinese-operated cyber scams in Cambodia. The country has become a hotspot for such activities, where individuals, often young and educated, are coerced into working under exploitative conditions to carry out online fraud.

Development projects, often linked to Chinese investments, have been criticized for proceeding without proper consideration for social and environmental impacts. The Dara Sakor seashore resort, a prominent project, was reported by the BBC in September 2023 to remain unfinished after 15 years, with little or no evaluation of the human and environmental costs involved.

The overall trend suggests a growing alignment of Cambodia with aspects of the Chinese political and economic model, raising concerns about the erosion of civil and social rights, environmental sustainability, and the potential exploitation of the population in the pursuit of economic development.

Cambodia’s Effect on the Bigger Geopolitical Picture

The completion of the Chinese-backed Ream Naval Base in Cambodia is gaining attention as it carries significant geopolitical implications, particularly in the ongoing competition between the United States and China. Satellite imagery from the American company BlackSky suggests that the Ream Naval Base, located in the southwest Cambodian province of Sihanoukville, is nearing completion.

The dock at the Ream Naval Base, similar in size and design to the one at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army base in Djibouti, is capable of accommodating various types of warships, including aircraft carriers. The presence of Chinese warships at the Ream base would carry significant strategic importance in the South China Sea conflict, bolstering China’s naval capabilities in the crucial Strait of Malacca.

The importance lies in the fact that, while China’s navy is larger than the U.S. Navy, China lacks an extensive international base network and logistical facilities necessary for a blue-water navy capable of global operations. Access to the Ream base in the Gulf of Thailand could provide China with a crucial strategic advantage, enabling it to project power more effectively in the region and strengthen its position in maritime disputes.

The development of the Ream Naval Base adds to the complex dynamics in the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific region, where the U.S. and China are vying for influence and strategic advantage. The naval facility’s completion further underscores Cambodia’s role in this geopolitical competition and focuses on the evolving landscape of alliances and partnerships in the region.