2023 is designated the “China-Cambodia Friendship Year” to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Early this year, on February 10, Prime Minister Hun Sen paid an official visit to China in a bid to further the development of the two nations’ “Community of Common Destiny”. Hun Sen signed a dozen papers during the visit, covering various topics including politics, economy, commerce and trade, and culture.
During the visit of King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk on February 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China and Cambodia are prepared to collaborate on creating a “Diamond Cooperation” framework with six key sectors.
Last year, the Queen Mother received the “Friendship Medal” in recognition of her exceptional contributions to the cause of friendship between the two countries. China asserted that its “no strings attached” aid had assisted Cambodia in achieving rapid economic growth, establishing a strong and functional government and promoting national security.
Sino-Cambodian relations can be traced back to ancient times, pre-date Angkor era and could be dated back as far as the 5th century. Historical records showed that two Buddhist monks, Mandrasena and Sanghapala, were to China by the Funan king to assist in translating Buddhist Sanskrit text into Chinese and one of them never returned back to Funan. And in the late 13th century, Zhou Daguan visited Angkor and provided invaluable insight about Angkor. These accounts showed the longstanding historical relations between the two civilisations.
Throughout ancient history, their relations were not established politically but only through trading. Between 1402 and 1424, Cambodian King sent seven missions to China and received only three from China. After gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia and China formally reestablished diplomatic ties, on March 1958. China was seen as a strategic country by Cambodia and the Sino-Cambodian ties were considered as cordial throughout the late King Sihanouk’s rule (1953-1970). Politically, Sino-Cambodian relation had been strongly promoted after 1997 and the two countries elevated their relations to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in 2010.
The friendship between China and Cambodia has thrived in the 65 years since diplomatic relations were established, according to Xi, who also added that this partnership has evolved into a role model for world relations. Leaders to leaders, government to government and party to party relations are the crucial elements that help enhance their “ironclad relations”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) named Covid-19 a worldwide pandemic at the beginning of 2020. Since then, tight regulations including travel bans, border closures, curfews and working from home have had a significant negative influence on the global economy and social progress.
To curb and contain the spread of Covid-19, the government chose Chinese-made vaccines as “strategic vaccines” and as a result, Cambodia was able to achieve its national immunisation goals, a robust government response to potential new outbreaks. With an abundance of vaccines and medical supplies, the country can now concentrate on promoting trade and investment as well as the tourism industry.
With the help of China’s vaccines, medical supplies and its leadership in the fight against Covid-19, Cambodia has been able to implement a nationwide vaccination programme, develop herd immunity and reopen its borders to fully immunised visitors. Hun Sen’s decisive moves and efficient leadership have allowed Cambodia to reopen the country earlier than other nations in the region.
On the basic of people-centric and economic development, China is one of the key economic drivers and humanitarian assistance for Cambodian people. The Covid-19 outbreak had a detrimental impact on Chinese investment in Cambodia in 2021, according to a study from the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC). In 2021, China invested $2.32 billion in fixed assets in Cambodia, an increase of 67% from $1.39 billion in 2020.
Under the Regional Comprehensive Economic (RCEP) and Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), both of which came into force in 2022, Cambodia-China trade and investment volume has increased drastically, expanding by 17.5% in 2022 from $16.02 billion in 2021. The two free trade agreements have facilitated the trade liberalisation and investment between the two countries.
Trade between the two nations is growing because of the positive relationship, shared commitment and vision for a Community of Common Destiny between them. Cambodia is one of the first supporters of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) when President Xi announced the projects in 2013.
Under the BRI, Cambodia and China have been actively joining hands to promote and improve cooperation in areas like people’s livelihood, agriculture, trade, investment, tourism and infrastructure, increase people-to-people exchanges, strengthen law enforcement and security cooperation, increase communication and coordination in international and regional affairs, and continue to support each other on regional and global issues.
The projects under the BRI are to promote inclusive, sustainable and win-win cooperation which includes Lower Se San 2 Hydro Power Dam, the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, the Phnom Penh-Preah Sihanouk Expressway, the forthcoming Phnom Penh-Bavet Expressway, Morodok Techo National Stadium, the Siem Reap International Airport, and the proposed Phnom Penh-Siem Reap Expressway, among other projects.
Lastly on strategic and defence cooperation, Chinese military assistance is a significant factor in the development of Cambodia’s military might, its technological prowess, and its ability to defend its territory and sovereignty. China and Cambodia have been engaged in yearly military drills known as “Golden Dragon” to bolster their military relations since 2016 and only postponed at the height of Covid-19. Following the pandemic that began in early 2020, China and Cambodia carried on with their fourth joint “Golden Dragon” exercise with the emphasis on humanitarianism and counterterrorism.
During the Covid-19 period, between 2020 and 2022, the two military conducted several anti-epidemic collaborations, trained medical professionals, and delivered anti-epidemic materials and vaccinations in various batches. Recently, the Global Security Initiative (GSI), proposed by China, received Cambodia’s support. Cambodia also stands ready to collaborate with China on global security governance in the pursuit of a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security, according to a joint statement released by China and Cambodia during Hun Sen’s February 9-11 visit to China.
From my own perspective, I do believe in China and China’s opinion that the world should be kept peaceful, new international relations models should be developed, and the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind should be established, in addition to the high-quality BRI development.
With the newly established plan for Cambodia-China Diamond Hexagon relations, the two countries will be able to achieve more political, economic and security cooperation under the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind – in which differences in political and social systems, histories, cultures should be less significant while joint efforts should be more focused on a sustainable and resilient global economy. China has taken strong measures to ensure that its neighbours share the prosperous, harmony and peaceful development.
In order to create a China-Cambodia Community of Common Destiny, the two nations are prepared to go forward from generation to generation.
Thong Mengdavid is a research fellow at the Asian Vision Institute’s Mekong Centre for Strategic Studies.
The views expressed are his own.