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Diamond-clad friendship

Growing economic relations between Cambodia and China mark a significant step forward in fostering cooperation and collaboration in the new era of a shared future

By CHHENG KIMLONG | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-06-19 07:50
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China and Cambodia marked the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in February 2023.The two countries have elevated relations to "diamond hexagon cooperation", marking an upgrade in their ironclad friendship amid increasing geopolitical tensions.

The two countries signified the depth of their relations by marking 2024 as the year of commencing the Cambodia-China people-to-people exchanges with the aim of deepening cultural ties. In the Mekong subregion, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in particular, Cambodia and China have established the only iron-clad friendship as manifested by the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed in 2010.

In terms of trade and economy, China is Cambodia's main driver of foreign direct investments, which have accumulated to more than $10 billion in 2022. The fundamental State-to-State and Party-to-Party connections have served as a major gateway for the two countries to continue deepening their relations. As of 2023, Cambodia registered an estimated economic growth of 5.6 percent and most of its manufacturing activities are closely linked to China. However, China has also benefited from Cambodia's growing economic ties with ASEAN and the world. These relations should be further nurtured.

Since 2010, Cambodia-China economic ties have been heightened with the foundation of mutual trust, drawing the attention of many larger economies. The increased interdependence has been a major driving force for various bilateral cooperation programs, including the new Action Plan on Building a Cambodia-China Community with a Shared Future in the New Era (2024-28). The Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone alone stands as a flagship example of increasing Chinese support to the country. In 2023, the value of imports and exports passing through the economic zone reached $3.36 billion, accounting for about 7.18 percent of Cambodia's total import and export trade. Moreover, Prime Minister Hun Manet attended the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing last October, which reflects China's warm embrace of Cambodia. The two sides have agreed to jointly build the Industrial Development Corridor and the Fish and Rice Corridor, which can bring further development flow into local communities in Cambodia.

While some may view China as focusing on its interests, its recent engagement displays otherwise. China is committed to strengthening its relationship with Cambodia by prioritizing more people-centric and mega-investment projects, such as the Siem Reap Angkor International Airport, the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway, special economic zones, and hydropower plants. Interestingly, under the new diamond hexagon framework, getting involved in Cambodia's energy sector could be feasible for China, potentially given its prioritization in the Chinese Government Work Report 2024. This demonstrates China's efforts to deepen comprehensive strategic cooperation with Cambodia for the mutual benefit of both nations. China's support to Cambodia comes with numerous investments and trade activities. A recent $600 million investment into Sihanoukville embarks a significant milestone for Cambodia's development. This investment is expected to generate potential revenue in its services and tourism sectors as well as enhancing its production capacity. Over the past 27 years, the exports of Cambodia to China have increased at an annualized rate of 23.6 percent, from $5.37 million in 1995 to $1.63 billion in 2022.

Additionally, the visit of Prime Minister Hun Manet to the 20th China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, in September 2023 aimed to boost the trade ties between the two countries, attracting more investors and businesses across global and regional landscape. This collaboration resulted in Chinese enterprises investing in various sectors, including agro-industries, manufacturing and transportation infrastructure. Specifically, the railroad development project will substantially benefit Cambodia in logistics efficiency, supply chains connection and tourism promotion.

The ambitious goal for a constant year-on-year 5 percent economic growth as outlined in the Chinese Government Work Report 2024 demonstrated a positive outlook for Cambodia-China future investments.

Cambodia-China relations will continue to bring advantages to both countries' development objectives. Chinese economic funding advances Cambodian public and private good, particularly to support the national development targets of the government. Chinese investors can benefit from Cambodia's Pentagonal Strategy Phase I and Cambodia's new investment law adopted in 2021 as the country is steadfast about opening up its economy, introducing legal and institutional refinements, and business and investment climate improvement. Much of the gains will go to the peoples of both countries, and the Cambodian government will need to advance its economic diplomacy by doubling down on efforts to attract investments from China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, ASEAN and other sources.

As a way forward, both countries should prioritize turning low-hanging fruits into long-term cooperation strategies:

Enhancing people-to-people relations to a higher level, namely holding more open, interactive, dynamic, and closer cooperation in private enterprises, innovation, digital transformation, skill development, and productive trade relations vis-a-vis Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The horizons of the crucial people-to-people relations can expand in multiple directions by aligning with the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, the Global Civilization Initiative and other national development plans and strategies of both countries.

Creating more favorable conditions to boost two-way trade to support domestic industries for exports and to raise productivity levels of the Cambodian workforce.

Linking the coastal provinces of Cambodia, namely Kampong Som, Kampot, Kep and Koh Kong, known literally as the K4, with the Hainan Free Trade Port of China will open more opportunities for bilateral and regional economic, trade, cultural, environmental, and energy cooperation.

Exploring further advancements in such areas as the interconnected digital economy, e-commerce, and data security will be both novel and promising for charting the course of inclusive, sustainable and resilient regional development, contributing to peace and mutual development.

In conclusion, the growing economic relations between Cambodia and China mark a significant step forward in strengthening bilateral ties and fostering cooperation and collaboration in the new era of shared destiny. The joint efforts of the two countries have underscored mutual commitment to deepening economic, political, and cultural relations at large. As long-standing partners with strong bonds, Cambodia and China are examples of the enduring power of diplomatic ties and strategic economic alliances while navigating the complexities of global trade. Through maximizing the potential for cooperation, both nations can further enhance economic and trade relations, promote tourism, and create a more prosperous future between the two countries. The prospects for building a Cambodia-China community with a shared future in the new era lie with the strategic trust, win-win cooperation and development partnership.


The author is President of the Asian Vision Institute, Cambodia. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

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