Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

As the competition between the US and China for influence is heating up, Cambodia cannot discount the importance of its relations with either of the two despite the extreme pressure to do so. This is not only because of Cambodia’s constitutional adherence to neutrality and non-alignment, but also because of the potential impact upon its national interests should Cambodia opt to disengage from either Beijing or Washington.

In bilateral terms, for good or for bad, both China and the US have played a big part in Cambodia’s contemporary history, and therefore their disengagement from Cambodia is simply not an option. Both countries have invested a lot in Cambodia, and not just in monetary-value terms. Nor is tangible cooperation confined to the military sphere and/or vague grand visions without clear definitions and methodology, leaving everybody to guess or giving space for both China and the US to accuse each other.

It is a fact that Cambodia can never sever ties with either of these powers. It is in the national interest of Cambodia to look for complementarities between the two.

From a political standpoint, both China and the US always claim that they support Cambodia’s independence and sovereign choices. The question is whether there is any difference between how China and the US define Cambodia’s independence. If it is the same, both countries should feel comfortable with and be respectful of Cambodia’s national interest. If it is not the same, then their claim is nothing but lip service.

It is natural that both countries want to take the best from Cambodia and it is fair to say that Cambodia also wants to take the best from them. Unfortunately, respect for equality of sovereignty is not always practicable in world politics. Considering the differences of power, asymmetry of relations sometimes is very obvious, and that is not only the case for China and the US. For instance, some countries’ ambassadors always demand to meet only with the Cambodian foreign minister, while Cambodian ambassadors can barely meet with those same countries’ technical-department directors.

From an economic perspective, it is easy to understand that Cambodia’s relations with the US and China are complementary and inseparable.

China is building Cambodian infrastructure that helps enhance connectivity of its territorial landmass and eventual domestic market connectivity and production chains. China is investing heavily in Cambodia’s garment sector simply because Cambodia receives preferential treatment from the US market. Billions of dollars invested from China has turned into billions of dollars’ worth of exported products to the US. If Cambodia has no market, China will not come to invest. If Cambodia has no production capacity supported by China, the provision of preferential market treatment by the US is meaningless.

The US benefits from cheap products from Cambodia; China benefits from production value chains; Cambodia benefits from job creation, income generation, enhanced labor safety standards, work ethics, fair treatment of laborers, and so on. This is economic complementarity that benefits all parties

The US benefits from cheap products from Cambodia; China benefits from production value chains; Cambodia benefits from job creation, income generation, enhanced labor safety standards, work ethics, fair treatment of laborers, and so on. This is economic complementarity that benefits all parties.

From a military strategic point of view, it is not in Cambodia’s interest to become a military arm of any country. In the past, Cambodia supported the so-called Sihanouk Trail on its territory that connected with the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos, which together constituted secret passages from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. The trail functioned as a logistical supply system that was used by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) during the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1960 to 1975. Because of this, the United States carpet-bombed eastern Cambodia from the late 1960s until the 1970s, with an estimated more than 2 million tons of bombs, leaving a minimum of 100,000 Cambodian civilian casualties and 2 million of our people homeless.

Besides the carnage, many believe that the US carpet-bombing of Cambodia partially gave rise to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Since then, security equilibrium architecture in Southeast Asia has not been favorable to Cambodia’s peace and stability. In the 70 years since the end of World War II, Cambodia has suffered from more than 30 years of proxy wars and civil strife. How is it possible for Cambodia to forget such bitter and tragic recent past?

Read: Why Cambodia yields to China’s strategic commands

For the sake of national security, it is natural that Cambodia enhances military cooperation with all friendly nations including China, the US, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This should not be seen as support for other countries’ military projections or building of alliances.

There is no necessity for Cambodia to imitate Thailand and Singapore in hosting foreign military facilities. Considering the enduring unstable relations with the US, Cambodia sees no interest in getting on the nerves of Washington. To a lesser extent, it does not do Cambodia any good either to provoke neighboring Thailand and Vietnam considering the current stable and excellent relations with those two countries.

If Vietnam, a communist state that is conducting more than US$100 billion worth of annual trade with China, can equally engage with the US, there is no reason that Cambodia cannot simultaneously engage with the US and China. Besides, Vietnam does not host any foreign military bases despite its competing claims with China in the South China Sea.

While Cambodia needs to diversify its military cooperation further, external partners should be aware of Cambodia’s perception of national-security threats, such as regime change, infringement of sovereignty and domestic interference. These concerns are equally applied to all external partners. Without such assurance, military cooperation is a risky choice for Cambodia, where the legacy of war is still visible across the country.

With all the above rationales, direction for the diversification of foreign relations was clearly spelled out at a diplomatic conference this year, requiring the Foreign Ministry to “strengthen internal reform and increase external partners in the spirit of national independence and sovereignty.” It was also decided that Cambodia should further promote self-reliance and reduce its dependence on foreign assistance as much as possible.

As such, both China and the US should respect and honor Cambodia’s efforts in this regard. They should understand that Cambodia’s protecting its national interest is not a crime.

The question regarding incompatibility of relations with the US and China is also relevant for other countries in the region. From a larger regional perspective, there are challenges within the foreign policies of both China and the US.

The most obvious case is the Philippines, when President Rodrigo Duterte dared the US to declare war against China in the South China Sea so that he could follow suit. He considered China a threat, but he equally expressed distrust of the US in terms of security assurance.

It is in China’s interest to assure smaller countries in the region that it is a respectable rising power that should not be feared as a hegemon. Considering its current confrontational relations with the US, it would be beneficial for China to strengthen trust with countries in Southeast Asia.

As for the US, it should be more predictable on its commitment to engage with the region in terms of tangible cooperation across the board. When the US threatened Huawei for a couple of months and then reversed its position; when one day President Donald Trump attacked Kim Jung Un and the next day they shook hands; countries in the region find it very difficult to determine policies of engagement with the US.

Either way, it is a common desire for all countries in the region to see stable and engaging relations between China and the US instead of the current intense confrontations that have stirred anxieties, and have gradually affected regional stability, if not security. Because all the countries in the region believe that their relations with the US and China are not incompatible.

Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.

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