The Bayon temple, a popular site close to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, northern Cambodia, a symbol of the country's proud heritage. Photo: AFP / Bruno Morandi, Robert Harding Heritage

Cambodia appears to be suffering from an image crisis, and the situation seems to be getting worse.

As a small country with limited resources, Cambodia lacks the ability to exert its influence in the regional and global arenas. Through the multilateral system and rules-based international order, however, Cambodia can exercise its agency and engage in diplomatic maneuvers that aim to achieve its core interests including sustained economic growth, peace and stability, independence, and sovereignty.  

Cambodia’s global image, which is one of the vital elements of its soft power, has been undermined both in the past and the present.

Cambodia has been recognized as a country whose people are among the friendliest in the world. It has rich cultural heritage and is home to some of the world’s most magnificent temple complexes.

Despite its glorious history roughly between the 9th and 15th centuries, Cambodia later went through a long series of civil wars and interstate wars, and in its modern history a genocidal regime, all of which have tainted its image, let alone prestige on the regional and international stages. 

Cambodia’s reintegration into the region and the world, particularly its membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2004, and other multilateral institutions, has to some extent lifted its reputation internationally. However, its efforts to project a good profile to the world have not always been successful.

Having opened up since the 1990s, Cambodia has begun to engage with others on more equal terms as a sovereign state as well as a country that adopted liberal multi-party democracy. However, some geopolitical issues in the region such as the South China Sea (SCS) disputes, Cambodia’s pursuit of national core interests, and domestic political developments have led to an image crisis.

In 2012, when it held the chair of ASEAN, Cambodia was between a rock and a hard place. Cambodia’s image reached a new low that year as the country was criticized for blocking ASEAN’s joint communiqué, leaving this regional body unable to issue a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history.

A similar incident occurred in Laos in 2016 when Cambodia was once again criticized for its unwillingness to include in the joint statement language about China’s territorial claims in the SCS.

While the issues surrounding the SCS disputes have undermined Cambodia’s reputation, and by extension its soft power, other developments in national politics and foreign policy have also contributed to damaging Cambodia’s name in the global sphere.    

Cambodia has been scrutinized by critics and analysts alike for its close alignment with China. It has been dubbed “China’s proxy,” “China’s client state,” “China’s pawn,” and “China’s vassal state.” All these names clearly further damage its international image.

However, this is not all. Last year, The Wall Street Journal published a report accusing Cambodia of signing a secret agreement with China to allow Beijing military access to its naval base in Sihanoukville. Although this accusation has been ruled fake and baseless by the Cambodian side and concrete evidence for the deal seems to be lacking, or perhaps not disclosed by the United States, it has already done the damage to Cambodia’s image.

In the meantime, Cambodia has made some negative headlines with its domestic politics. For example, the government led by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party dissolved the country’s only meaningful opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, jailed it leader, banned more than 100 CNRP members from politics for five years, and forced a leading English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, to shut down.

These events signal Cambodia’s transition to authoritarianism, or “descent into outright dictatorship,” as some called it. They also worsen the Cambodian image in the eyes of the international community. 

To sustain his regime that has grown more repressive, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is set to embrace China further to gain maximum benefits from Chinese-led development initiatives, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative. Phnom Penh’s foreign policy will continue to be driven by economic pragmatism as Cambodia needs to bounce back and revers the economic slowdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moreover, Cambodia’s post-pandemic image may hit another new low if the government does not genuinely try to engage the West. Specifically, although the European Union may have to reconsider its approach toward Cambodia as regards the latter’s human and political rights issues, Phnom Penh also has to rethink its strategy in dealing with the EU vis-à-vis the Everything But Arms scheme.

In August, the partial withdrawal of Cambodia’s EBA status will come into effect. When that happens, its economy will face at least two concurrent challenges. One is the consequences of Covid-19 and the other is the impact of EBA withdrawal. This is not to mention Sweden’s decision to cut aid to the Cambodian government and instead redirect it to support democracy advocates and human-rights defenders in the kingdom.

Meanwhile, around 400 garment factories employing more than 150,000 people have already suspended operations because there are neither market orders nor enough raw materials as buyers in the EU and the US – Cambodia’s main export markets – have canceled their orders and supply chains are disrupted by the pandemic. 

Worse still, the tourism sector, which contributes about 12% of Cambodia’s total gross domestic product, has been severely affected by the Covid-19 crisis. In April, it was reported that monthly revenues from ticket sales to the Angkor Wat temple complex dropped by 99.5%. As the pandemic continues, the country’s tourism industry also continues to falter, making Cambodia’s recovery plan amid and after the pandemic a highly challenging task.

Thus, considering Cambodia’s domestic politics, its handling of regional issues and its foreign-policy maneuvering, the country tends to suffer from bad publicity, which further erodes its reputation. 

The current government and obviously its successors, therefore, have to consider this issue of image crisis seriously and find ways to improve Cambodia’s standing on the regional and international stages. A better image will help the country advance its tourism industry and enable it to become a cultural hub in the region. 

As a country with a proud past that was able to build Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, Cambodia deserves a proud future. All relevant stakeholders must commit to promoting Cambodia’s image and soft power now and in the future.

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Kimkong Heng

Kimkong Heng, a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship, is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and a visiting senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. All views are the author’s own.