China’s Growing Ties with Cambodia: What Does It Mean for Vietnam?


Cambodia, a Southeast Asian nation has placed itself in a tough position as a result of the disagreement between China and Vietnam about problems pertaining to the South China Sea and the obstacles involving the Mekong River. Cambodia is in a difficult situation from a strategic perspective as it has maintained robust economic ties with two competing nations China and Vietnam. In recent years, this has led Cambodia to be caught in the middle of the conflict. Because of the continuous geopolitical competition between Beijing and Hanoi, Cambodia has to carefully manage its connections with both of these nations, even if it considers them both to be close allies.

China’s participation and involvement in Cambodia have greatly grown since the two countries upgraded their ties to a full strategic alliance of cooperation in the year 2010. According to a famous quote from the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson, “States do not have friends or enemies but have interests in long-term”. Cambodia and China have worked to strengthen their connections and have established a mutually beneficial cooperation in order to further their respective countries’ interests. As a result of China’s introduction of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as other projects such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, the Sino-Cambodian ties had begun a new chapter.

In recent times, the expanding military ties between Cambodia and China have had an impact on Vietnam’s strategic calculation. China has stepped in to fill the hole left by the deterioration of Cambodia’s military ties with the United States, which occurred in 2010.  Over the last several years, China has provided Cambodia with assistance in the development of its naval capabilities. Among these projects is the improvement of the infrastructure at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, which overlooks the Gulf of Thailand and is located just 30 kilometers from the island of Phu Quoc in Vietnam. As a result of the deepening ties in the water near Ream Naval Base, bigger vessels from China would be able to dock and conduct operations in the region.

Also, Vietnam and China see the South China Sea as a potential source of territorial expansion for themselves. So, territorial disagreements have often resulted in violent conflicts with the Chinese navy in the past. The presence of Chinese military installations in the South China Sea makes it more difficult for Vietnam to exploit the resources that are located inside its EEZ. Because of these facilities, Chinese naval assets are now able to maintain a constant presence across the South China Sea, which interferes with the operations of regional governments like Vietnam.

Since the beginning of April 2023, there has apparently been a dramatic rise in the number of Chinese troops, equipment, and supplies in Cambodia. In addition, China and Cambodia carried out their very first joint naval exercises in Cambodian waters between 23rd March 23 to 5th April. During “The China-Cambodia Golden Dragon 2023” exercise, 3,000 troops and 300 vehicles participated from both countries. The establishment of Chinese radar and surveillance equipment in close proximity to the Ream Naval Base has become a source of even greater worry for Vietnam. The majority of the land has been earmarked for use by an air defense unit of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, while the remaining area would be used for a naval radar system. Previously, Cambodia had been able to improve its naval and air defense and surveillance capabilities surrounding the Ream Naval Base.

For Cambodia, there would be a need for Chinese participation or money in the construction of the new military facilities in Ream National Park. Previous statements made by Cambodian officials had highlighted the lack of communication and monitoring capabilities possessed by the navy, as well as the need to improve the country’s air defense. So, Vietnam is concerned about the lack of openness about Cambodia’s ongoing building operations at the Ream Naval Base. Vietnam is further worried about China’s developing military relations with Cambodia because of the situation in the South China Sea. Concerns have been raised in Vietnam over the possibility that China is using Cambodia as a means of exerting pressure on Vietnam along its southern border. These recent occurrences in the area of the naval station have raised concerns for Vietnam’s national security.

Despite the fact that Cambodia and Vietnam have good ties, one Vietnamese official claimed that Cambodia has not provided Vietnam with any information on the current development at the Ream Naval Base. Despite this reassurance from Cambodia, the Vietnamese government still viewed the construction of air defense installations in Ream National Park as a potential threat to national security, particularly as China is in charge of the project. Any kind of air surveillance radar would make it possible for Chinese military personnel to monitor the location and movement of Vietnamese aircraft in southern Vietnam. Beijing might eventually fall into clashes with Vietnam from both the north and the south, since there is a potential that China could operate its naval warships from the Ream Naval Base and target Vietnam’s interests. The speculation that surrounds China’s usage of the Ream Naval Base and the neighboring air defense installations continues to be unabated. Up until that point, Vietnam is going to continue to keep a wary eye on the burgeoning defense ties between Cambodia and China.

Cambodia views engagement with China presents significant prospects in the context of Chinese development aspirations. On the other hand, Vietnam views the steps taken by China as posing a risk to both its water supply and its national security. Cambodia’s strategic lean toward China has been placed on show, to the detriment of its ties with Vietnam and the other members of ASEAN, despite the fact that its relations with Vietnam have remained positive. In 2018, Cambodia and Vietnam had signed a military cooperation agreement that would last for the next five years, from 2020 to 2025. The purpose of the agreement was to strengthen the military relations and help each country provides to the other.

But there are at least four factors to consider while attempting to understand Cambodia’s stance with regard to China. Firstly, China has been Cambodia’s most important bilateral contributor and biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). China is the source of 43 percent of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Cambodia, which accounts for 70 percent of the employment possibilities available to Cambodians working on a variety of infrastructure development projects. Secondly, in terms of carrying out respective foreign policies, Cambodia and Vietnam seem to take quite different approaches. Vietnam has allied itself with the United States in the goal of protecting its maritime sovereignty from China’s expansionist policies. On the other hand, Cambodia has moved closer to China because China is the trustworthy ally for economic growth and political support that the CPP needs to maintain power and domination. Thirdly, it would seem that developing good connections with China might create security assurance for Cambodia, which would be a necessary counterbalance to the danger posed by the neighboring country. Also, political elites of Cambodia believe that maintaining close connections with China is a workable approach for Cambodia to increase its military might. Lastly, Cambodia is building relations with China as an effective instrument to “hedge” against Vietnam’s influence.

In concluding remarks, it can be added that, in a world ruled by international anarchy, the relations that nations have with one another regularly shift due to changes in the national interests of each state. Cambodia’s ability to manage its international affairs has been severely constrained as a result of the geopolitical restrictions it faces. While Cambodia is looking to China for financial and military aid, it is also helping China promote its objectives across Asia, particularly regarding its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. This is a kind of reciprocity for the assistance that China is providing Cambodia. The influence of the strengthening of the connections between China and Cambodia is felt in the relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. Therefore, since China and Vietnam play such a crucial role in Cambodia’s economy and strategic interests, Cambodia has to be more cautious in balancing its relations with Beijing and Hanoi.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Modern Ghana [Link]