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A new era of geopolitical contestation has dawned in Southeast Asia



Sokphea Young,

Chinese lanterns hanging in Siem Reap, Cambodia. CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Flickr/fabulouslabs

The relationship between Cambodia and China was established in the late twelfth century (during the Khmer Empire) when Zhou Daguan visited Cambodia for the first time. The Kingdom regarded the arrival and visit of the first generation of mainland Chinese immigrants as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. However, rather than attempting to control political power, these immigrants established good relations with the Cambodian King by ensuring a mutually beneficial business relationship within the Kingdom. In September 1947, the first official Chinese consulate was established in Phnom Penh, and by the 1960s about 135,000 Chinese immigrants were recorded to have lived in the city.

Sokphea Young holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and founded the Cambodian Scholars Network. His research focuses on social and political development in Southeast Asia.

Zhou Enlai and Norodom Sihanouk, the two heads of state, met in Indonesia at the Bandung Conference in 1955 to strengthen the diplomatic ties between the two nations. However, this relationship was interrupted by geopolitical turbulence: the US War with Vietnam, the pro-US Lon Nol regime (1970–75), the Khmer Rouge (1975–79) of whom China was believed to be a supporter, Vietnamese occupation (1979–89), and the United Nations (UN) Transitional Authority of Cambodia (1991–93).

The European Union and the United States have offered a significant amount of aid to Cambodia since the UN organized elections in 1993, when Western democracy was imposed on the country, and of all donors they were the most generous. However, since 2010 China has become the biggest donor and lender to Cambodia. Chinese financial support has influenced Cambodia’s domestic and foreign policies. This became apparent in 2012 when Cambodia, as a chair of ASEAN, was accused of blocking any statement on China in regard to its role in disputes over contested territory in the South China Sea.

Balancing between Three Global Powers

Following the 1998 elections and given the benefits offered by the US Generalized System of Preference and the EU’s Everything but Arms (EBA) initiative, many foreign investors became interested in Cambodia. The inflow of foreign capital increased significantly from around 800 million US dollars in 2010 to more than 1 billion in 2012–13 and 3.5 billion in 2018. Chinese investment accounted for 20.4 percent of total foreign investment to Cambodia, and Cambodia considered China to be its most crucial strategic partner.

Following the 2013 announcement, Cambodia has supported the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Capital from this initiative has flooded into the country and been invested in several sectors, including but not limited to infrastructure, real estate, energy, industrial zones, and agriculture. The tremendous financial support of BRI to developing countries like Cambodia has resulted in the breakdown of relationships and tension between BRI recipient countries and Western countries.

Politically, Cambodia has been situated between the three global powers China, the EU, and the US. Unlike China, the latter two are known to be Western democracies that have been critical to Cambodia’s democratic performance. Economically, Cambodia has relied mostly on investment from China, whereas the US and EU countries are the largest markets for Cambodia’s garment and manufacturing of industrial goods. Cambodia appears to lean on China as their political ally, using this relationship to maintain political stability.

This imbalance between political and economic alliances designates Cambodia as a contested geopolitical ground. As a small and weak state, every significant activity of the Royal Government of Cambodia is subject to scrutiny from powerful political agents. Among several examples of this are the allegations that Cambodia is hosting Chinese military bases, aiding the Chinese military rather than the US, or the suspicions surrounding the occupations of Chinese immigrants in the country.

Chinese Bases and Western Sanctions

The coastal development projects which are financed by Chinese government capital have positioned Cambodia and its government in the eyes of the West, especially the US, as supporting China’s globalist agenda, which is to be achieved through military power and trade. Situated in between the Kiri Sakor and Botum Sakor districts of Koh Kong in South-West Cambodia’s coastal area, Dara Sakor is an economic land concession (ELC) designated special economic zone (covering more than 30,000 hectares of land) being invested in by Tianjin Union Development Group Company Ltd (TUDG). TUDG is known to be sponsored by the Chinese BRI fund and many have claimed that this investment suggests the establishment of a Chinese military base in Cambodia.

In 2008, The Royal Government of Cambodia granted this investment a 99 year concessional lease. This 4-billion-dollar project has built casinos, retirement residences, hotels, golf courses, a seaport, roads, and an airport. Zhang Gaoli, once among China’s top politicians, presided over the signing of the project in 2008, and said it is “the largest seashore investment project not only in Southeast Asia but in the world.” Due to its size and the length of its runway, Dara Sakor International Airport, which was constructed as part of this project, has been accused of being built with the intent of hosting Chinese military aircraft. While there is no clear evidence that the special economic zone is a designated Chinese military base, the US is suspicious about this intent given its location and proximity to (about an hour-and-a-half of commercial flight time) the Spratly Islands military base in the South China Sea.

In addition to the infamous practices of TUDG, in particular the violation of human rights and eviction of rightful existing communities in Dara Sakor, TUDG and a senior Cambodian general of the Royal Cambodian Army (RCA) who was involved in the land disputes were sanctioned on 15 September 2020 by the US Treasury Department. The sanction says: “Of additional concern are media reports that the Cambodian government spokesperson, Phay Siphan, said that Dara Sakor could be converted to host military assets. A permanent PRC military presence in Cambodia could threaten regional stability and undermine the prospects for the peaceful settlement of disputes, the promotion of maritime safety and security, and the freedom of navigation and overflight.”

Apart from the contested special economic zone and the airport, another contested location of an alleged Chinese military base in Cambodia is the Ream Naval Base of the Royal Cambodian Navy, located approximately 100 kilometres from the Dara Sakor project. Since 2010, the Ream Naval Base had been the site of joint Cambodian-US training and naval exercises. However, this ended in 2018 when the US cut aid, including military assistance, to Cambodia because of the country’s setbacks in regard to democracy. Ream Naval Base’s facilities were formerly funded by Australia and the US. Ream Naval Base is seen as a strategic location in the Gulf of Thailand that could provide access to the South China Sea.

The government of Cambodia and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) are accused of accepting Chinese financial aid to upgrade the Ream Naval Base instead of US support. The allegations of a secret deal between China and Cambodia for access to Ream escalated when US-financed facilities built in 2017 were demolished. The US claims that “China has signed a secret agreement allowing its armed forces to use a Cambodian navy base near here, as Beijing works to boost its ability to project military power around the globe”.

Given its approximate location to the Dara Sakor Airport, the US alleges that the naval base would increase Beijing’s capacity to enforce coastal territorial claims and economic interests in the South China Sea, ultimately threatening US allies in Southeast Asia. Notwithstanding this allegation, the Prime Minister and military officials have denied any intent to host China, arguing that there is no secret deal granting access to Ream Naval Base to China alone. The Prime Minister claims that Cambodia’s constitution does not allow any foreign military base within its sovereign territory.

Occupying Sihanoukville

The recent influx of a new generation of Chinese immigrants and investors into Cambodia has caused cultural and economic shock to the existing population, including Sino-Cambodians.

In 2018, the Chinese population of the city of Sihanoukville stood at approximately 20 percent, with their arrival doubling by 126 percent when compared to 2017 by 120,000 Chinese immigrants. Compared to the older generation of Chinese immigrants (now Sino-Cambodians), most of whom were poor and had fled natural disasters or war in China, the new generation of Chinese immigrants, who appear to be well-educated, have brought a vast amount of capital for investing in land, real estate, and gambling. A hotel owner in Sihanoukville told this author in 2019 that “the rent offered by the new Chinese in Sihanoukville is triple, more than what we usually earned”, prompting Cambodian and Sino-Cambodian landlords to rent to the recent Chinese immigrants as opposed to existing communities.

Many studies and news reports observe that cultural differences between the new and old generations of Chinese immigrants have worsened Sinophobia among many Cambodians and Sino-Cambodians. Reported street fighting and the violation of Cambodian laws by recent Chinese migrants in Sihanoukville province are frequently reported, and the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia has acknowledged that some new generation Chinese immigrants are causing problems in the province. The embassy called for stricter law enforcement, but the perceived lawbreaking of a small number of recent Chinese immigrants has created a new sensitivity to Chinese migration in Cambodia.

As many Cambodians have left the province, selling land and property to wealthier landlords and corporations or renting shops and grocery stores to Chinese businesspeople due to unaffordable rents, it is apparent that the influx of a new generation of Chinese immigrants in Sihanoukville is feeding a new form of colonialism. New arrivals to the province occupy it at the expense of not only the poor or marginalized communities who suffer from land appropriation, conflicts, and occupational discrimination, but also environmental issues caused by the growth of high-rise buildings. Frequently asked questions by Cambodian communities and researchers including “how can these Chinese immigrants afford the expensive rent and properties and who are these immigrants?” remain unanswered.

Security has become a concern, as crimes committed by Chinese immigrants are perceived to be rising. Cambodian news media and social media repeatedly report the arrest of Chinese criminal groups and gangs, who these sources claim organize online extortion and other scams, mostly in the Sihanoukville province. Some Chinese gang groups have even threatened to control Sihanoukville province. In curbing these criminal activities, hundreds if not thousands of Chinese were deported from Cambodia to China.

Cambodia Responds

As evidenced by the ruling party’s suppressive and coercive actions against activists, human rights defenders, and opposition parties in Cambodia (including the dissolution of the prominent opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party), Cambodia has resorted to an authoritarian style of leadership that ultimately maintains the political tenure of the leaders present in China.

In addition to sanctions on individuals and companies, the West, i.e. the US and the EU, have striven to influence the Royal Government of Cambodia, especially the ruling party, to restore the country’s democracy and border position between these global powers. To this end, the EU has partially withdrawn its EBA trade preference scheme from Cambodia. The scheme had boosted Cambodia’s garment sector that, as of 2019, employs about 600,000 Cambodians, most of whom are women from rural areas. However, in late 2020, US lawmakers called on their government to review Cambodia’s privileged trade access (GSP) and impose additional target sanctions on Cambodian magnates and politicians.

These sanctions will have an adverse impact on Cambodia’s exports and economy. Annually, Cambodia exported about 4 billion euro (2017–19) and 4 billion US dollars (2017–19) worth of apparel and goods to EU and US markets. Despite these sanctions, the Royal Government of Cambodia, especially the Prime Minister, did not concede to maintain conditions for the EU’s EBA. Following the EU’s partial withdrawal of EBA and sanctions on individuals by the US, the Chinese government pledged to support Cambodia’s economy through the Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

In January 2020, less than a year from the negotiation and regardless of the spread of the COVID-19, the Cambodia-China bilateral FTA was signed on October 2020. The agreement promises a new era of “comprehensive strategic operation partnership, jointly building the China-Cambodia communities with a shared future”, i.e. the joint construction of the Chinese BRI. In early 2021, Cambodia is reported to have exported agricultural products worth up to 3.43 billion US dollars, of which China has become one of the biggest importers.


Compared to Western countries, China has established a longstanding political and economic relationship with Cambodia. The recent political developments in Cambodia have eased and strengthened its bilateral relationship with China, whose geopolitical and economic interests benefit not only Cambodia’s ruling regime but also its economy. While Chinese investment (through BRI) and financial assistance to Cambodia have surpassed Western financial support, Cambodia’s economy still relies on Western (US and EU) markets. Cambodia has committed to navigating its diplomatic relationships between communist/authoritarian and democratic countries.

The Chinese side appears to favour the country’s progression towards hegemonic authoritarianism. In between the two political ideologies, democracy and authoritarianism, Cambodia is positioned as a geopolitical zone that is subject to contestation by global powers who have exploited Cambodia, making it an ideal playing field for political malcontent: a zero-sum game of competing geopolitical interests. For the sake of its domestic political affairs, Cambodia, in favour of Chinese support, is jeopardizing its relationship with the West. The West, however, appears not to have abandoned Cambodia, but continues to fight for this small but important geopolitical ground.


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