10: Cambodia’s South China Sea Policy: From ASEAN Aligned to Echoing Chinese Clientism


The South China Sea has once again become a flashpoint for conflict between China and some ASEAN states, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. It has also strained relations between China and the United States (US). China’s recent position of growing more assertive in advancing its claims has raised tensions and risked the militarization of competing claims by other states including the US and its allies. The diplomatic impasse between China and the ASEAN claimant states, as well as within ASEAN has, furthermore, made the situation less predictable. Worse still, taking advantage of a world distracted by the current coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, China took new and bolder actions, as evidenced through its declaration of the establishment of two new administrative districts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.1

China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has put ASEAN states, other actors, and Cambodia in a challenging strategic situation, seeking to balance with China and the US to further their strategic interests. Cambodia has decided to adopt a different policy approach from its ASEAN member states regarding China and the US. Some other states in the region chose to have engaged in a balanced strategy (that is, hedging or neutral) with both superpowers in order to gain benefits from both sides: economic interests from China and security interests from the US. In contrast, Cambodia has pursued a strategy of bandwagoning towards China to accrue economic interests.2

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