Cambodia Tilts Towards China Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

Despite the outbreak of the Coronavirus, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen chose to make an official visit to China on Wednesday, calling Beijing a “true friend”, vowing to uphold cooperation with the country and showing support for Cambodian residents who have been in the country during the outbreak. Chinese leader Xi Jingping described the visit as “A friend in need is a friend indeed” vowing to intensify efforts to eradicate the virus throughout the country.

The response of Cambodia stands notably different to that of some other countries in the world  who have in fear of public health repercussions moved quickly to place distance with themselves and Beijing, with the United States, Australia and others restricting travel completely between their countries and the Chinese mainland. Whilst of course many countries have reacted differently to the scaling crisis, each with individually influenced levels of threat perception, nevertheless that does not mean politics has not come into it, especially with a climate of fear being whipped up by the mainstream media acting as a suitable cover.

In doing so, some countries have inevitably saw opportunities, be that for or against China. In Washington, Wilbur Ross made questionable comments in relation to the trade war and Mike Pompeo also upped critical rhetoric against Beijing, attempting to use Xinjiang as a wedge issue between central asian countries and China. One cannot omit the old saying that “in every crisis lies an opportunity” and in this scenario given the intensity of global politics right now, such has been observable.

This leads us to the question of Cambodia. Despite being a poor country with so much more to lose and so much less capability in the face of a coronavirus outbreak, the choice of Hun Sen to visit Beijing reveals how its relationship with China has continued to increase in recent years, and that it is in the country’s long term interests not to place distance with China in the midst of the outbreak, but to hasten ties. It is after all, somewhat distinctive to other ASEAN nations. It is smaller, less developed and had a far more turbulent history than the rest of its South East Asian neighbours, it also lacks the diplomatic power that nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have.

By leaning towards China, Cambodia perceives that it can attain leverage not only on its economic interests, but also strategically on a regional position especially when it comes to dealing with its neighbours. As it has very little coastline, it is not a naval power and therefore is not locked in territorial disputes with Beijing as other regional states are, thus it depends on diplomacy with China to get what it wants on South China Sea matters and has supported China’s position accordingly. On a broader international scale, the country also faces greater alienation from the United States and Europe who are frustrated at the lack of progress towards democratization, with Brussels having threatened tariffs accordingly.

Given this, Hun perceives that a message of outright support for China, than distance and coldness, is in his best national interests. Beijing will ultimately remember his favour and he hopes that they will return it. China will also look to his visit to remind the world that the best way forwards through this situation is cooperation. Whilst precautions can and obviously should be taken, they should be nevertheless practical, measured and not excessive. As progress on containment of the virus continues to yield identifable results, other nations should thus immediately start to question the viability of their travel precautions.