Cambodia Foreign Policy

Cambodia Foreign Policy


Regional integration

Cambodia was de facto not a member of the international community for a long time, as it was even represented by the Khmer Rouge and the rest of the government in exile at the United Nations until the early 1990’s. In 1999 the kingdom was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The country is also a member of the Greater Mekong sub-region and a number of important regional and global international organizations (UN, APEC, WTO, ASEM, etc.). In 2012, Cambodia held the chairmanship of ASEAN and, during the summit of foreign ministers in July, was largely responsible for failing to reach a joint declaration for the first time in the 45-year history of the state organization. In October 2012 it failed Cambodia’s application for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. China and Vietnam are considered to be Cambodia’s two most important bilateral partners. The proximity to China in particular is causing more and more suspicion among other Southeast Asian states and is increasingly damaging the kingdom’s reputation within ASEAN.

Border conflict with Thailand

In the Thai-Cambodian border area for decades smoldering conflict in which both countries ostensibly fighting over border demarcation and to the Hindu temple of Preah Vihaer. The confrontation began in July 2008 when soldiers from the two states stood armed near the 11th-century temple complex. The border conflict reached its preliminary climax in February and April 2011, when the fighting was also fought with heavy weapons and killed numerous people. The main stumbling block is an approximately five square kilometers uninhabited and difficult to access rainforest area near the Preah Vihear sacred building, which, however, plays an important role in the tourist use of the World Heritage Temple.

In the conflict, however, it is less foreign policy than domestic policy motives, especially in Thailand, that are of decisive importance. For both sides, nationalism plays a major role in this conflict. Despite all the emotions, both countries tried to bring about a legal clarification: In June 1962 the International Court of Justice ruled with nine to three votes that the temple is on Cambodian territory – a decision that was never accepted by Thailand. This judgment was made more precise in November 2013: In a new judgment, the judges unanimously decided that the disputed 4.6 km 2 area around the Hindu temple belonged to Cambodian territory and does not belong to Thailand. However, the ruling has not yet been implemented by the parties to the dispute, so that it would be premature to draw a line under this conflict.

Relations with Vietnam

The regime in Phnom Penh traditionally maintains good relations with Hanoi – at the end of 1978 the personalities who have ruled to this day came back to Cambodia with the Vietnamese invasion troops to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia was subsequently occupied by the Vietnamese until 1989, which explains the widespread resentment of many Khmer towards the influential and much larger neighbor in the east.

In recent years, however, official relations with Vietnam have increasingly cooled, as Prime Minister Hun Sen places particular emphasis on good relations with the People’s Republic of China – Vietnam’s traditional rival – and pursues an increasingly confident foreign policy. The final demarcation of the shared border holds particular potential for conflict, which is still not clearly regulated in some places and is regularly criticized, especially by Cambodia’s dissidents, because they believe that Vietnam is getting more benefits from the agreements reached. In June 2015, the Cambodian government publicly criticized the shifting of border markings in the Rattankkiri province deep into Cambodian territory – a new low point for the country, probably not least in order not to leave the field in public with the opposition alone to safeguard national interests vis-à-vis Vietnam Cambodian-Vietnamese relations.

What connects and divides with Laos

In addition to their Buddhist character, Cambodia and Laos primarily have historical parallels as former French colonies in the Vietnamese hinterland, which were more or less involuntarily drawn into the second Indochina war and have been operated by socialist (Laos) or post-socialist regimes (Cambodia) for four decades. be dominated. Bilateral relations are seen as a little tense due to potential issues such as the (planned) construction of hydropower plants on the Mekong in Laos, which could seriously affect Cambodia’s food safety. In 2017, reports of border disputes attracted attention, although these had a local origin and were – for the time being – settled after a few military muscle games.

China – by far the most important partner

Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has the closest ties with the People’s Republic of China, and no country in the world receives as generous Chinese support as Cambodia. In addition to the granting of loans and bonds, China is making a significant contribution to the implementation of major infrastructure projects. Nowhere is the Chinese influence perceived more clearly than in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, which in recent years has increasingly developed into a Chinese casino city modeled on Macau and where the local population is gradually being displaced. It also has military cooperation Let the governments in Beijing and Phnom Penh move closer together, something that is particularly disliked in the USA and Vietnam.

In particular, rumors that Cambodia could unconstitutionally allow China to set up a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand are causing a stir in security policy. And this is not just the US perspective: Among the ASEAN members, the Philippines and Vietnam in particular are critical of Sino-Cambodian relations. China is also hoping for Cambodian support in the conflict over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, in which four ASEAN states are involved: Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.

According to, China’s dominance in Cambodia is now so evident that a neo-colonialist relationship of dependency can no longer be completely dismissed. With its one-sided orientation towards Beijing, the government in Phnom Penh is increasingly distancing itself from its western partners, whose considerable support in the 1990’s was still elementary for the political survival of the re-established kingdom. In this respect, the increasing domestic political repression against independent democratic actors, which the USA and the EU in particular have for a long time effectively protected, are closely related to the foreign policy orientation towards China.

Cambodia Foreign Policy