Cambodia, ASEAN & the United Kingdom: Continuity & Change

Scott Rawlinson

26/July/2016, Features



From the offset it should be noted that the purpose of this piece is not to innovative, nor to influence or set the agenda for future policy decisions. The goal here is more modest – to provide information and promote understanding about relations between the United Kingdom (UK), ASEAN and Cambodia throughout recent history and in light of “Brexit” (the popular colloquialism designating both the wish to leave the European Union (EU) as well as the act and state of a British exit from the EU). The narrative zooms in and out in quick succession, focusing at first on the nature of the relationship between Britain and Cambodia within the realms of human rights and reconciliation, most notably in the case of the Khmer Rouge tribunals, before shifting to a broader regional approach when discussing business and trade, stability and security.

To the casual observer the role of the UK in Cambodia may seem puzzling, insignificant, or even non-existent, operating so far below the surface as to be undetectable. This is especially so when compared against the physical and architectural grandeur of the French and US embassies, as well as their well-documented historical and ongoing ties with Cambodia.

Concise analyses of political and economic relations between Cambodia and the United Kingdom are few and far between. With the exception of Nicholas Tarling’s Britain and Sihanouk’s Cambodia (2014) it is challenging to find book length studies of relations between the two Kingdoms.

While an article of this length cannot hope to do justice to such complex and, at times, invisible subject, it can begin to redress the balance.

Redressing that balance requires addressing a number of questions. What historical ties do the UK and Cambodia share? What is the nature of the UK’s involvement and what exactly does it hope to achieve in Cambodia? Until recently, and alongside bilateral relations, much trade and business was conducted through EU institutions. However, with a majority of UK voters deciding Britain would be better off outside the EU it is pertinent to ask exactly what shape future relations between the two kingdoms, as well as UK relations with ASEAN and its other member states, are likely to be.

Unhelpfully, at least for the purposes of this study, many of the source materials talk of relations at the EU-ASEAN or UK-ASEAN level, particularly so in the case of trade. Nevertheless, wherever opportunity has presented itself to take a more “microscopic” approach (i.e. UK-Cambodia level) it has been grasped with enthusiasm.

Reconciliation and Human Rights

The UK opened its embassy back in 1953 following Cambodian independence from the French. It continued to operate until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge’s social revolution led to the complete abandonment of the capital, Phnom Penh, and the virtual end of diplomatic contact with the outside world. The UK embassy in Cambodia only reopened in the 1990s at a time when the UN were becoming increasingly involved in the post-conflict reconstruction of the country.

Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has been gradually rebuilding itself, taking stock of its recent past and pursuing justice for the millions of people who died in the years 1975-1979. A major part of this search for justice and reconciliation has been the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), of which the UK has been a key financial contributor since its founding in 2006. By 2012-2013, the UK had provided approximately $8.9million.[1]

Britain reaffirmed its commitment to the justice and reconciliation process in 2016 when Hugo Swire, UK Minister for Asia, emphasised the importance of the ‘reconciliation process’ as:

‘a vital mechanism for the Cambodian people to establish truth and bring about reconciliation between communities, as well as an important ingredient to build a peaceful and inclusive society…’[2]

Outside of funding and support for the ECCC, British involvement in Cambodia has covered a diverse range of areas from climate change, governance, education, de-mining and child protection, among others.[3] For instance, in the educational realm the British Embassy has played a vital role in launching Cambodia’s first ever STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers guide.

The UK is also home to a number of influential human rights NGOs, including Amnesty International UK, that carry considerable weight in the political arena. While Britain is careful not to impinge on the national sovereignty of Cambodia, powerful pressure groups, as well as the EU standpoint on tying levels of aid to reform, influence UK-Cambodia interactions on a political level.

How Brexit will effect bilateral political and economic relations remains an open book. One recent commentator suggested that the result of the UK referendum ‘untangled [Britain]…from the EU’s labyrinth regulations and wishy-washy human rights policies that hinder closer engagements’.[4] Others may find this view unpalatable, seeing nothing at all “wishy-washy” about human rights. Again, with a powerful human rights and NGO sector, there will be pressure on the UK government to be sensitive to the evolving human rights situation in Cambodia and ASEAN, and they will be expected to act in a transparent and humanitarian manner.

Business and Trade

Business, trade and investment are at the centre of the UK’s and EU’s relations with ASEAN. British ministers have, on several occasions, stressed their awareness of and sensitivity towards the so-called “Asian Century”.

In July 2015, ex-British Prime Minister David Cameron undertook a four-day visit to South East Asia, stopping off in Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. At the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta he expressed his desire to deepen economic ties between the UK and ASEAN, commending developments towards the ASEAN Community and exploring greater UK involvement and cooperation in infrastructure and e-commerce.[5]

Back in the UK, we heard how £750 million worth of trade deals were to be signed along with the promise of 270 new jobs. He also emphasised the dynamism and future prospects of the region and trade with the wider world, stating that: ‘over the next 20 years, 90% of global growth is expected to come from outside Europe and Britain’.[6]

While a number of bilateral agreements were also on the agenda, the overarching goal of UK-ASEAN and EU-ASEAN trade deals remained. David Cameron let it be known that EU-ASEAN trade could be worth £3 billion to the UK economy. Here was an explicit attempt to position the UK as outward-looking and stress to potential Remain voters the benefits of being part of the EU as a means of gaining access to this fast-growing region.

Additionally, Sajid Javid, the former UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, made a keynote address at Asia House as part of the UK-ASEAN Dialogue. He emphasised the need for greater two-way investment and, more particularly, encouraged more investors to put their money into business ventures outside London, mentioning the so-called “Northern Powerhouse” (a term referring to the UK government’s efforts to reposition the British economy away from London and the South East to the North of England).[7] Javid was therefore echoing comments made by David Cameron on encouraging Malaysian businesspeople to invest beyond the financial nerve-centre of London to the Midlands and the north of England.

The tone of Hugo Swire’s April 2016 speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was also explicit in its desire for Britain to remain within the EU and conduct trade through its institutions, pointing, by way of example, to the trade benefits of the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement.[8]

Brexit: A Changing Relationship?

However, in light of Brexit, Britain will be required to (re)negotiate trade deals outside of EU institutions, which also means that the country will be unable to offer interested investors and businesspeople, such as those from commonwealth countries, access to the 500million consumers within the EU.

The ASEAN member states are not immune from Brexit. There is little doubt that Brexit will come hand in hand with a degree of uncertainty, particularly as the process of repatriating trade, environmental and other regulations to the UK gets underway. One source indicates that three times more ASEAN investment is being made in the UK than in Germany and the US combined, with Britain accounting for half of all investment from ASEAN to Europe.[9]

Furthermore, the drop in currency values of the pound and the euro against most ASEAN currencies may benefit some importers who now find themselves with greater purchasing power. On the other hand, exports may fall as businesses in the UK and Eurozone become reluctant to purchase goods and services from ASEAN countries due to their reduced purchasing power. This might hurt Cambodia slightly more than others as the country exports far more to the UK than it imports.[10] Also, will new investors be put off investing in the UK as access to the EU market becomes more uncertain?

Outside perceptions of British isolationism should be tempered – those in the Brexit camp are not shunning the idea of trade with the outside world. Additionally, with Asia’s and ASEAN’s large number of emerging economies it is likely that Britain will want to remain a significant part of the ASEAN ‘growth story’.[11]

Actual eventualities are impossible to predict and business leaders in Britain, Cambodia and the wider ASEAN region will no doubt keep a close eye on ongoing developments.

Security & Stability

The foreshadowing of the “Asian Century” has also meant renewed UK interest in the political and security dynamics of the South East Asian region. In April 2016, Philip Hammond, the UK’s former foreign secretary (now Chancellor of the Exchequer), made a diplomatic visit to Hong Kong, China, Japan and Vietnam, his fourth sojourn to Asia in 16 months. Such visits further demonstrate Britain’s desire to be involved in this dynamic and fast-growing region. Put simply, Britain does not want to be left out.

The UK’s various regional endeavours and activities within Cambodia in particular are framed by concerns revolving around security and stability. On discussing the South China Sea at the ASEAN Secretariat, David Cameron urged the parties involved to seek solutions based on the foundations of international law, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and ASEAN’s Six Points Principles.

Currently, British admiration for security and stability sits uneasily and bashfully beside the decision in favour of Brexit. The vote has created widespread uncertainty and instability, particularly with regard to trade, though security concerns may become a hot topic as the as-yet unknown implications of Brexit unfold.

In our global and inter-connected world, Cambodia and ASEAN will undoubtedly learn important lessons from Brexit, especially if it turns out to be part of a trend rather than a one off.   


These two kingdoms may be geographically far apart, separated by wide gulfs in culture and history. Yet, the two have close, if under-reported, ties in the arenas of justice and reconciliation; trade and investment; and security.

The recent decision of the British public to vote for Brexit may unsettle relations between the UK and the wider world. However, there is perhaps a silver lining. The likelihood is that, with access to the EU being more convoluted, British business and investors will intensify their search for markets and opportunities further afield. The Asia-Pacific is undoubtedly on the UK’s radar and if new trade deals can be reached in a reasonable timespan Brexit might, in the long run, become a net-gain for the two kingdoms and ASEAN. The future alone knows.

Scott Rawlinson received his MA in South East Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is currently a Fellow, and Coordinator for Fellows, at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS), Phnom Penh, and will commence a PhD in Politics in October 2016. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute.


[1] ‘The Two Kingdoms: UK & Cambodia - Growing Relations Year on Year’. Cambodian Business Review (April 2013). [accessed 20/06/2016].

[2] Hugo Swire. ‘Pacific Partnership – the UK and US in Asia’. [accessed 20/06/2016].

[3]The Two Kingdoms: UK & Cambodia - Growing Relations Year on Year’. Cambodian Business Review (April 2013). [accessed 20/06/2016].

[4] Rui Hao Puah, ‘What Brexit Means for ASEAN’. New Mandala (27/06/2016). [accessed 09/07/2016].

[5] ASEAN. ‘ASEAN, UK to Deepen Cooperative Relations’. ASEAN Secretariat News. [accessed 05/07/2016].

[6] ‘PM sets sights on south-east Asia with £750m business deals and new EU trade deal’. [accessed 05/07/2016].

[7] Sabuhi Gard. UK Business Secretary calls for Greater Two-Way Investment between Britain and ASEAN’. Asia House (13/10/2015) ‘ [accessed 20/06/2016].

[8] Hugo Swire. ‘Pacific Partnership – the UK and US in Asia’. [accessed 20/06/2016].

[9] Paul P. Chen et al., ‘Implications of Brexit on ASEAN Investors’. DLA Piper (30/06/2016). [accessed 09/07/2016].

[10] Maxfield Brown, ‘Brexit Implications for ASEAN Based Investors’. ASEAN Briefing (24/06/2016). [accessed 09/07/2016].

[11] Sabuhi Gard. UK Business Secretary calls for Greater Two-Way Investment between Britain and ASEAN’. Asia House (13/10/2015) [accessed 20/06/2016]; Free Malaysia Today. ‘Cameron Invites Malaysian Investors to Northern England’. Free Malaysia Today (31/07/2015). [accessed 20/06/2016].