Cambodia’s Perpetual Beijing Trap And Manet’s Tricky Pipe Dream – Analysis

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet’s visit to Malaysia on 27 February is part of a larger strategic overture, including his visit to Vietnam late last year in the months following his new leadership.

With the new dilemma and trap of regional power play and the ties with Beijing and Washington, Manet seeks to chart a new path of long term assurance for Cambodia, against the backdrop of the perspective of Phnom Penh being the satellite player of Beijing.

The visits to Vietnam and now to Malaysia are geared to strengthen joint security and defence, especially in the context of building and strengthening neighbourly trust and continental solidarity.

The visits serve to bolster collective regional commonality in policymaking and ideological strength in continuing to seek common policies, joint economic and security spillover and interdependence, amidst the bulwark of Beijing led influence and orbit.

Cambodia and Laos and increasingly Myanmar are in a bigger context of deeper Beijing dominance and in repelling Western overtures and courting, except in the case of Thailand who is now waking up to future realities. Manet tries to adapt to the same approach.

Cambodia needed Vietnam and Malaysia to provide the lifeline in economic, energy and food security, and increasingly, the assurance in terms of defence and security and new digitalisation drive.

Cambodia is trapped between the need to respond to a growing Myanmar instability, a new progressive and liberal Thailand under Thavisin and a stagnating Laos.

Thus, Vietnam plays the most critical role in maintaining the economic, defence and ideological and value based push to maintain Cambodia’s future needs, also to maintain ties and demands and interests with China from the continental Southeast Asian perspective.

China needs Cambodia to ensure continuity and as a check and balance for Vietnam’s ambition, using its historical and geographical leverage over Hanoi in trapping Vietnam between China in the north and Cambodia to its southwest.

For Malaysia, although key elements of the visit and the ties will be based on trade, energy and economic investments, hard power and key security considerations with geopolitical factors will be the most strategic underlying factors

Cambodia will want Malaysia to serve as the ultimate economic and energy support system in giving the returns of assurances in energy and supply chain security, alongside tapping into the vast economic opportunities and industries that will provide the alternative future economic direction of the country

This includes the halal industry, commodities and the digital economy framework. All these provide the much needed alternative economic foundations in changing the fundamentals of the Cambodian economy, and most importantly, in targeting the future openings of Malaysia in serving as the hub of the digital and green economy with targeted growth sectors in critical minerals, the new energy transition and resilience in supply chain and maritime trade advantage.

Cambodia will need a new long term strategic partner in its new economic and security charting in breaking from the China centric economic and security orbit. Malaysia is seen as among the most prospective ASEAN member states in the archipelago domain alongside Indonesia in providing the needed geomaritime advantage and the economic fundamentals transformation.

In assuming the ASEAN chairmanship next year, Malaysia is leveraged on to provide the balancing role and in keeping ASEAN relevant, where Manet is trapped in the dichotomy of needing to chart Cambodia to a new reform-minded model of development and being wary of any changes in the ties with China that still serves as Cambodia’s lifelines.

Cambodia was one of the earliest nations to establish diplomatic relations with Malaysia in 1957. In 2023, Cambodia ranked as Malaysia’s 9th largest trading partner in the ASEAN region.

The value of bilateral trade between Malaysia and Cambodia stood at RM3.02bil, with exports from Malaysia to Cambodia valued at RM2.35bil, representing a 1.6 per cent increase from the previous year.

Malaysia is seen as the player that will be able to keep the status quo and to balance regional tilt and orientation, with Kuala Lumpur having the same dilemma with Phnom Penh.

As much as Manet will want ASEAN to be the main framework of economic and security dependence, individual overtures remain a double edged sword for both Cambodia and external powers including the US. To Washington, Cambodia remains a lost cause in the effort to break the chain of Chinese orbit and influence, and internal governance framework is deemed to be too entrenched in the policymaking that is China centric, alongside the flawed governing system that is seen as non-democratic.

Hun Manet has stated that if Cambodia relies on only China or the West, Cambodia will suffer as it did during the Cold War.

In the balancing role that Manet is trying to extend, he met with EU ambassador Carmen Moreno and requested the EU to renew its support for Cambodia and help provide funds for the Multi-Annual Indicative Programme 2021-2027. This is an instrument to facilitate the Joint European Development Cooperation Strategy. 

Hun Manet also expressed appreciation to the US for helping Cambodia’s garment sector by enabling Cambodia to export garment products to the US , but most notably thanked the US for supporting Cambodia’s democracy, human resource development, demining and assisting Cambodia during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hun Manet is realistic and cognisant that getting support from the US and Western countries is significant for his leadership, but most importantly, giving Cambodia a much needed alternative lifeline in the future.

Courting ASEAN and alternative non Beijing players will give Manet a new leadership charisma outside of Cambodia, but might be at the expense of growing dire in Beijing, although Manet has been quick and strategic to balance that out.

The potential in ASEAN in giving the long term stability and status quo as needed by Cambodia serves as consolidating the narrative that it continues to have faith and dependence on ASEAN in both the economic and security frameworks, in balancing the perspective that Cambodia is more willing to abandon ASEAN in favour of siding with China. 

In validating its long held position and perception of being Beijing’s satellite state in the continental Southeast Asia, it cannot have too much of a deviation from its current fixed spectrum of foreign policymaking that might alter the status quo, but early signs of an independent intent to secure a long term future that is closer to the region and its offering as a sustaining and credible support alternative beyond China, are showing.

The Ream port that is deemed by the West to be the strategic Chinese militarisation strategy in the region and in serving as the closer geographical military support for South China Sea in complementing the Southern Theatre Command in Hainan, symbolises the unbreakable bond and ties between Phnom Penh and Beijing, where the former is the strategic support point for China in the continental domain of Southeast Asia, providing the strategic link-up from the maritime entry and exit point of the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea to the continental geographical domain of Southeast Asia, all the way to the southern flank of China and to South Asia and Central Asia. 

The only other two players that share this similar geographical connector advantage, Thailand and Vietnam, remain on a different path of ties and affiliation with China, and this justifies the increasing strategic tag that Beijing has on Cambodia in this geographical regard.

Cambodia is now entering a new transiting phase of its foreign affiliation, but not quite the one that will alter the status quo as much as maybe Manet or the West and regional players might hope for.