A Small State’s Foreign Policy Approach towards A Great Power: Cambodia’s Foreign Policy towards China

Leng Thearith

19/05/2016 Feature


Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy towards China is characterized by two main features. On the one hand, Cambodia has pursued a policy of bandwagoning or alignment with Beijing, while, on the other hand, it also draws closer to Beijing’s competitors such as Tokyo, Washington, and Hanoi. Since Cambodia’s strategy towards China does not contain defiant elements, it cannot be described as “hedging”: a strategy which normally combines elements of deference and defiance. Unlike other Southeast Asian states, Cambodia does not aim to counterbalance against China. I argue that Cambodia’s diplomacy vis-à-vis China could be termed as “soft-bandwagoning” or “soft-alignment”. To clearly illustrate the argument, it is necessary to define the concepts of balancing, bandwagoning, and hedging.

Mainstream IR theorists, especially those of a realist brand, generally posit that a smaller power is likely to encounter limited options when confronting a threat from bigger powers. These are confined to either balancing against the rival power or aligning itself with it. According to Kenneth Waltz and Stephen M. Walt, a small state may choose to bolster its defence capability by raising its defence expenditure and enhancing its military weaponry to counterweigh threat. This is termed as internal balancing. Meanwhile, it may ally with another state, which shares a common threat perception, in order to counter the rival state. This is called external balancing (Waltz 1979; Walt 1985).

In contrast to balancing, bandwagoning is a strategy whereby the smaller power gives in to the rival power in order to avoid being attacked (Walt 1990), or whereby the smaller power opts to align itself with the victor to make economic gains (Schweller 1994). Additionally, in recent years, there has been an emerging concept known as ‘hedging’. The strategy, according to Van Jackson (2014), is a policy of pursuing opposing or contradictory actions as a means of minimizing or mitigating downside risks pertaining to these various actions. It generally encompasses deferent and defiant characteristics.

Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam have generally pursued hedging against China. This means that they cooperate with Beijing on the one hand, while seeking a balance against the latter through either internal balancing or external balancing on the other hand. The Cambodian strategy towards China falls, however, short of the element of counterbalancing China. A prominent feature of this small state’s strategy vis-à-vis China is bandwagoning or alignment with China, as evidenced by Cambodia’s support of China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and its backing of bilateral mechanisms to manage disputes in the South China Sea.

Regarding the MSR, the Cambodian Premier has, since 2014, shown his enthusiastic support for the creation of the supporting Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund. Further, Cambodia has echoed Beijing’s stance in lamenting ASEAN’s handling of the South China Sea dispute, and suggesting that the issue be solved bilaterally (Kong 2015).

Arguably, there is additional evidence for an alignment policy of Phnom Penh vis-à-vis Beijing in Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s visit to China in early February 2016. The trip took place just after a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Cambodia, in late January. Hor Namhong’s visit to Beijing has been interpreted by some observers as a way to comfort Beijing, who may find it irritating to see its regional ally drawing closer to its competitor − Washington.

Despite the current strategy of alignment, it would be erroneous to conclude that Cambodia is a Chinese client state. This small state has, in fact, also sought close relations with China’s competitors, including Vietnam, Japan and the US. As late as in 2013, Hun Sen travelled to Vietnam and flattered Hanoi by reiterating the Vietnamese contribution to the 1979 liberation of Cambodia, in front of several Vietnamese senior officials and former veterans.

Cambodia’s determination to maintain cordial relations with Vietnam are additionally evidenced by the former’s handling of the issue of Kampuchea Krom, an area which constitutes a major part of today’s southern Vietnam. In 2014, a Vietnamese diplomat stated that the area had, according to Vietnamese historiography, belonged to Vietnam long before the French officially ceded it to this country in 1949. His words inflamed Cambodian nationalist sentiments, and led to a series of anti-Vietnamese demonstrations in Cambodia. The Cambodian government has not made any diplomatic move requiring Vietnam to clarify its interpretation of history, for fear of damaging bilateral ties with Hanoi.

At a global level, Cambodia has also intensified its relations with China’s competitors, especially Japan and the United States. After the elevation of Cambodia’s relations with Beijing to the status of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in December 2010 — the highest level of cooperation Phnom Penh has ever reached with a foreign government — Cambodia also upgraded its relations with Tokyo to a ‘strategic partnership’ in December 2013. Notably, the two parties have stressed the need for freedom of air navigation in the region, irritating China to an extent.

As for the United States, Cambodia has become one of the Southeast Asian countries that strongly backs the US policy of fighting against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Cambodia commits to cooperating with the US in searching for soldiers gone missing (MIA) during the Indochinese war from the 1960s to the 1970s. Cambodia also supported the elevation of the US-ASEAN partnership to a “strategic level” in November 2015 – a move not warmly hailed by Beijing.

Cambodia’s strategy of drawing closer to China’s competitors, namely Vietnam, Japan, and the US, is not necessarily aimed at counterweighing China. The US has been one of the largest importers of Cambodian textile products, whereas Japan has been playing a crucial role in providing economic aid and peacebuilding to Cambodia since the 1990s. Maintaining healthy ties with these two powers will significantly enhance Cambodia’s economic well-being and promote sustainable peace in the kingdom. The notion that Cambodia’s rapprochement with China’s rivals is aimed at countervailing China is not completely valid.

Moreover, another important factor that might have shaped Cambodia’s strategy to befriend these countries - regardless of whether they are Chinese friends or adversaries - is associated with this small state’s historical experience. The Cambodian history during the 17th - 20th centuries has proved that aligning with a particular power or balancing against it resulted in the loss of Cambodian territories and national independence to neighboring countries. Further, it allowed foreign powers to manipulate Cambodian factions, instigating the country’s internal instability which lasted for centuries. Cambodia’s national interests are best safeguarded by befriending all of its neighboring countries and surrounding powers. By so doing, Cambodia can avoid repeating its past mistakes. The current policy makers in Cambodia are likely to have learnt from their country’s tragic experiences.   

In conclusion, one cannot assume that Phnom Penh’s act of drawing closer to Beijing’s rivals is aimed at countering Beijing. This policy response may be driven by the economic necessities of a small state. It may also be triggered by the country seeking to avoid repeating its historical mistakes. In short, one can argue that Cambodia’s act of forging close ties with China’s adversaries is mainly aimed at maximizing its foreign policy options in order to ensure its sustainable economic and security interests by avoiding complete reliance on one great power.

This suggests that Cambodia does not primarily seek to play China off against its rivals. Given the absence of an element of defiance in Cambodia’s diplomatic relations with China, one cannot postulate that Phnom Penh has hedged against Beijing. Nor could it be claimed that Cambodia has completely aligned with China, given Cambodia’s efforts to diversify its ties with China’s competitors such as the US, Japan, and Vietnam.  This diplomatic strategy fits uncomfortably with the existing literature on small states’ foreign policy strategies. This strategy, as I would suggest, could be called the policy of ‘soft-bandwagoning’ or ‘soft-alignment’.


Jackson, V. (2014). Power, Trust, and Network Complexity: Three Logics of Hedging in Asian Security. International Relations of the Asia Pacific, 331-356.

Kong, S. (2015 йил 26-March). Hun Sen: ASEAN May Not Be Able to Resolve the South China Sea Dispute. From The Voice of America: http://khmer.voanews.com/content/cambodia-hun-sen-echoes-china-position-on-south-china-sea/2694550.html

Paul, T. V. (2005). Soft Balancing in the Age of US Primacy. International Security, 47.

Paul, T. V. (2005). Soft Balancing in the Age of US Primacy. International Security, 58.

Schweller, R. L. (1994). Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In. International Security, 19(1), 72-107.

Walt, S. M. (1990). The Origins of Alliance. New York: Cornell University Press.

By: Thearith Leng, PhD Candidate in Political and International Studies, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy