Why the US Opposes Closer Cambodia-China Ties

People wave flags of Cambodia (R) and China (L) as Chinese training ship Qijiguang prepares to dock with a banner reading "Bring peace and friendship to meet good friends" during a welcome ceremony at the Sihanoukville port in Preah Sihanouk province on May 19, 2024. Photo by AFP

In July 1950, the United States and Cambodia established diplomatic ties, and during the US involvement in the Vietnam War, those ties became closer. Still, there has always been tension between the two nations. 

Diplomatic relations are complicated by the fact that some politicians in Cambodia support China while others support the United States, which contributes to the tensions.

China, one of Asia's great powers, has had a major impact on the geopolitical landscape in Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, in recent years. China and Cambodia have improved bilateral relations as a result of Cambodia's increased diplomatic strategy. 

In the US, people are becoming concerned about this increasing intimacy. For a number of reasons, the United States is not pleased with China's growing influence in Cambodia. 

The United States sees a threat to its own strategic interests in Southeast Asia from China's growing sway over the region. Concerned about Cambodia establishing closer diplomatic ties with China, the United States is worried.

Geographical elements 

Cambodia is a strategically significant country for China and the United States due to its central Southeast Asian location. 

Throughout history, Cambodia has traversed intricate relationships with formidable neighbors and worldwide superpowers, frequently attempting to strike a balance between outside influences and preserving its sovereignty. 

The balance of power in Southeast Asia and regional stability may be greatly impacted by Cambodia's alignment in the context of the rivalry between the United States and China.

Development and Economic Interests 

With about $1.4 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in Cambodia, the largest economy in the world, the United States, has made significant investments in the development of Southeast Asia.

Actually, with $74.3 billion spent on building factories and other projects during the same period, the United States is the largest investor in capital projects throughout Southeast Asia, surpassing China's $68.5 billion. US economic interests in Cambodia and possibly in the larger Asian market could be jeopardized if Cambodia were to align itself more closely with China. 

Principles of Democracy and Human Rights

In terms of democracy, Cambodia ranked 121st out of 167, and human rights 141st out of 142 countries in 2023. This raises serious concerns about governance and human rights in Cambodia. 

The foundation of American foreign policy is the advancement of democracy and human rights. By stepping up its diplomatic efforts, the US seeks to advance democratic governance, transparency, and the rule of law in Cambodia. 

The goal of the US is to present itself as a collaborator in advancing democratic reforms that will ensure the long-term political and social stability of Cambodia. 

China, on the other hand, is a socialist nation that frequently exercises influence against democratic ideals. In order to maintain democratic values and its sphere of influence in the region, the United States, a major advocate of democracy, works to stop Cambodia from implementing a political structure resembling China's. 

Military cooperation and security 

An important part of US policy in Southeast Asia is addressing security concerns. The United States employs joint military drills, training initiatives, and defense support as a means of fortifying security relationships and augmenting Cambodia's defense capacities. 

These initiatives support a regional security framework that is in line with US interests. In 2017, Cambodia suspended all military operations with the United States and began training with the Chinese People's Liberation Army. 

In mid-May 2024, Cambodia was in its sixth Golden Dragon exercise with China. This change emphasizes how critical it is for the United States and Cambodia to step up military cooperation to offset China's increasing military influence in the South China Sea and the larger Indo-Pacific area. 

To counterbalance China's influence and guarantee that the security dynamics in the region continue to support US strategic interests, it can be beneficial to strengthen military ties with Cambodia. The United States seeks to sustain international norms, advance stability, and preserve an open and free Indo-Pacific region by strengthening defense cooperation. 

For various major reasons, the United States is worried that Cambodia may be forging closer diplomatic ties with China. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also visited Cambodia to strengthen ties with the country, especially as geopolitics are tightening. 

Geographically speaking, Cambodia is a strategically important country whose alignment could have a big impact on the balance of power and stability in the region because of its central Southeast Asian location.

The United States has historically been a major investor in the region; however, closer economic ties between China and Cambodia pose a threat to American investments and influence there. 

In addition, the United States places a strong emphasis on advancing human rights and democratic values in regions where China's influence frequently conflicts with democratic ideals and where Cambodia faces serious challenges. 

Security-wise, too, China's growing military power in the Indo-Pacific raises concerns about potential threats to US strategic goals, as evidenced by the change in Cambodia from American to Chinese military cooperation, best demonstrated by joint drills like the Golden Dragon. 

In this sense, Cambodia must be very careful about whom it chooses as partners because a poor choice could cause instability in the nation and the surrounding area. 

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