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Cdr Mohd Yusri Yusoff RMN was commissioned into the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) in
1995. He is a full-fledged submariner and a qualified Principal Warfare Officer. He served in
various positions onboard surface combatants and submarine before, with the most prominent
being the Commanding Officer of KD TUN RAZAK, one of the two Scorpene Class submarines.
He holds a diploma in Technology Management (UTM) and Master in Business Administration

This research examines a two-layered power dynamics at the regional level, namely the influence
of a sub-regional hegemon on the policies of smaller states toward a rising and proximate great
power. It specifically seeks to explain why despite the significance of the Vietnam factor that
existed in regional states’ external policies, Cambodia has exhibited different tendencies and
adopted different approaches, in leveraging its relations with a rising China vis-á-vis Vietnam.
The neoclassical realism theoretical framework is chosen as the analytical tool, as it provides
the ability to assess both external and internal factors, which are deemed important in shaping
the policy taken by Cambodia towards China. A combination of global, regional and economic
factors has been identified as the sources of systemic pressures and incentives that can have
an impact on Cambodia and Laos’ domestic perceptions and calculations, which in turn shape
their policies toward China. The main finding of the research is that, while the regional states
were under the same structural pressures and incentives toward a rising China, it can be
seen that the Vietnam factor is greater in shaping Cambodia’s China policy; in-part due to
the ruling elites differing degrees of tendencies to mobilise their respective historical memory
and nationalist sentiment, alongside performance legitimacy, to preserve their authority and
maintaining their power at home.

In 2012, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had for the first time in its
45- year existence, failed to issue a joint communiqué on the possible violation of the United
Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) directed to China. Cambodia, being
the hitherto chairman of ASEAN refused to accept the language used in the communiqué by
citing that there was a lack of consensus. The enormous accrued investments made by China
to Cambodia, have been perceived as China’s structural incentives for Cambodia, leading
towards this accommodating stance. Correspondingly, under the same systemic factors,
other regional states have shown a lesser degree of accommodation to China’s geopolitical
aspirations. For example, being the ASEAN chair in 2016 Laos did not either make any
statement or interfere with the process of issuing a joint statement to the arbitral tribunal
ruling of 2016 South China Sea (SCS) case between China and the Philippines, whereby
Cambodia again objected.

Even when economic pragmatism was often the idea that scholars related to when
it comes to describing Cambodia‘s policy towards China in the last two decades, it does
not fully explain the differences in their current reactions. Being the economic backwaters
amongst the Southeast Asia’s economic “tiger” states, the economic considerations could
only partly explain it; as China did invest a considerable amount of capital in both states.
Nonetheless, it rationalized the stance of Cambodia, but it did not explain a more docile
stance of Laos under the same pretexts. This puzzle has beseeched researchers to look for a
factor that could influence the differences that exist within the Indochina region.

The former region of French Indochina has always fascinated scholars and
academicians alike. In 1975, when the communist gained victory in Vietnam, the communist
party of Cambodia also succeeded in their ascend to power (Kiernan 2014). The hitherto
region’s paternal communist, the Vietnamese Vietminh had always been more dominant in
comparison to the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. Due to its supportive role behind Khmer Rouge
during its initial struggle (Leifer 1975: 543; Thayer 1984: 57), Vietnam grew accustomed to
the psyche that Cambodia owed their communist roots to them. This has set a stage for the
balance of power struggle in the region; when Hanoi’s aspiration was to become the sub-
regional hegemon, this meets the reactions of Cambodia. It has also generally established a
second-layer power dynamics at the structural level in the region.
Hence, the researcher argued that one of the main influencer in Cambodia policy vis-à-
vis China, would also partially lay in “the Vietnam factor”. Consequently, in accordance with
Rose (1998) argument that while structural factor does encourage states to improve its relative
power in the international structure, states may also respond to it differently depending on its
own perceptions and capabilities, the researcher also argued that domestic factors also played
an important part in intervening with the structural influencers in the case of Cambodia.
These domestic factors which were represented by domestic politics and leaders’ interests,
would intervene on the systemic factors of great power politics, the Vietnam factor and geo-
economic considerations, in shaping Cambodia’s China policy.


Cambodia’s China Policy can be described in three phases. The first phase occurred during
most part of the Cold War era from 1945 up until 1979, where the policy was fluctuating from
initial neutrality to being close and further apart in the end. The second phase occurred during
the “occupation” by Vietnam, where Cambodia’s China policy was non-existence. The third
phase of this evolution happened after the end of Cold War, where the policy went from
normalization of relations, up until the accommodating stance that Cambodia is currently
providing China. These three phases could be attributed mostly to the systemic factors, where
great power politics were observed to be the most dominant factor during the first phase, the
influence of the Vietnam factor in the second phase, and the geo-economic consideration
in the third phase. Domestic factors have also been observed to interpret all these systemic
factors to some extent, but it was deemed to be more influencing towards the later phase.

Great Power Politics

Ever since the end of the Second World War (WWII), great power politics has been the most
influential factor in shaping Cambodia’s external policy, up until the end of Cold War. During
the post-WWII period, there was a decline in western European power, hence the Soviet took
the opportunity to fill in the power vacuum in eastern Europe (Warburg 1954) region. Realising
Soviet’s geopolitical expansion, the United States (US) exerted a counter-pressure strategy
(Beschloss 2006). Known as the “Truman Doctrine”, this US policy essentially defined the
conflict between the East and West. Due to its experience in WWII, US acknowledged the
geostrategic importance of Indochina, and took it as one of its primary interest (La Feber
This was evident, when the US contradicted its own “Truman Doctrine” by letting Indochina’s
former colonial power French back to Cambodia (La Feber 1975: 1287). The US was pushed
to do this as it needed France’s support to face Soviet’s expansion in Europe and to ease its
uneasiness on the development in China (that subsequently culminated in the establishment
of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949) (Warner 1972, Thee 1976: 118). Even when
Cambodia had yet to gain its independence in 1954, this systemic factor as a form of influence
has shown the initial impact of great power politics in modern-day Cambodia.

Cambodia gained its statehood in 1954, at the 1954 Geneva Accord (Fifield 1977). It
was during the time of intense rivalry between the East and West (Russia and the US). Being
wary that Indochina would succumb to communism, the US has thrown the region into its
Second Indochina War (Thee 1976: 119); directly affecting Cambodia’s external policies.
Cambodia, under the leadership of Norodom Sihanouk, was rather pragmatic with this first-
layer “powerplay” in order to reap the benefits of having the attention of both sides; hence its
initial neutrality stances. Smith (1961) argued that with neutrality, both the East or West could
not afford to stop their aids nor could they risk losing Cambodia to the other side. The US
relations with its traditional enemies which are Thailand and Vietnam had nevertheless made
Cambodia wary of the situation (Smith 1961). Even when Cambodia’s leader Sihanouk has
always been overt on his revulsion of communism (Gordon 1965), one could advocate that
China was Cambodia’s safest bet to leverage on its surrounding traditional threats. This has
thus explained the subsequent closeness in Cambodia’s China relations in the early 1960s.

Their relationship however backfired; Smith (1968) argued that Sihanouk had later
found out that China was influencing its population with its revolutionary ideas. Sihanouk
consequently tried to normalize back Cambodia’s US relation during the visit of Jacqueline
Kennedy in 1967 (Smith 1968). The US rejected this as they were not willing to jeopardize
their relationship with South Vietnam and Thailand. In 1970, when Sihanouk was on his
overseas visit, his Prime Minister General Lon Nol (with US’ backings) overthrew him
(Leifer 1975). With Sihanouk out of the picture, Lon Nol was obviously on the side of his
benefactor, the US by pushing Cambodia farther from China. These great power politics
have mostly explained the fluctuating Cambodia’s China policy and it has also exhibited the
dominant of this first-layer power dynamics in influencing the policy of Cambodia towards
China during the first phase.
The divisiveness in the communist’s world between Russia and China was the first-
layer power dynamics that have led to the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam in 1968. It was
the undercurrent to the differences between the two countries, and that has led to the 10-year
occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam, from 1979 up until 1989. China has always shown
tendencies to look after its own interests and had in various times been both a subordinate and
an opponent to Soviet, contradicting Moscow’s theorem of one “monolithic world socialist
camp” (Thee 1976: 119). In the late 1960s, due to its nationalism principles, China saw that
the growing Soviet power was becoming more of a threat and subsequently China terminated
its relation with Soviet and normalized its relationship with the US (Turley 1980). Hence,
it can be implied that Vietnam saw this move as the ultimate betrayal; as Beijing was an
integral part in Hanoi’s struggle against Washington, and China was then on its enemy side.

China’s move was nonetheless calculated as it has perceived Vietnam as a growing

threat due to its regional hegemonic aspiration (Turley 1980). Ba and Kuik (forthcoming
2018: 231) contended that after the communist victory, Vietnam was “anxious to assert its
nationalist autonomy” from China. In fact, for the last 2500 years, China has always been
in a love-hate relation with Vietnam and the hitherto territorial disputes (which includes the
Spratly and the Paracel islands) had amplified it further (Thee 1979: 95, 97). On top of this,
Vietnam’s Soviet relation has also augmented China’s perceived threat on its southern border.
So, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, China took the opportunity to wage a limited
war in Vietnam’s northern border (Thyer 1984). It could be argued that the real pretext to this
was actually in accordance with these perceived Vietnam and Soviet’s threats. China wanted
to show that the Soviet would not come to Vietnam’s aid, and was hoping that Hanoi would
subsequently loosen its relation with Moscow and turned back to Beijing (Turley 1980). This
has shown that there were second-layer power dynamics between Vietnam and China, in the
region. It has also explained the non-existence of Cambodia’s China policy in the second

In effect, one could advocate that this two-layered power dynamics at the systemic
level, have both influenced Cambodia China policy in the two-initial phase. Cambodia and
Vietnam could hence be viewed as “vassal states” to the Soviet-China powerplays. The
divisiveness that existed in the communist world had divided Cambodia and Vietnam under
different communist patronages and different political polarizations. The significance of this
second-layer power dynamics of the Vietnam factor would however be explained below.
The Vietnam Factor

The Vietnam factor started to show its early signs of influences to modern-day
Cambodia during the ending phase of WWII. In 1930, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was
entrusted by the Communist International with the establishment of Communist Party
of Indochina (Thee 1979: 96). It could be inferred that Ho Chi Minh has postulated this
as a recognition to take the leading role, in liberating Indochina from its colonial master.
Influenced by Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh saw that Indochina’s nationalist sentiments
could be an advantage of, by his brand of communism (Duncanson 1969). In effect,
he started to infuse the nationalist sentiments of Indochina’s population (who were
fighting against colonial French) with communism, through Vietminh. The nationalist
front in Cambodia has been subsequently affected by this idea. Ho Chi Minh took
the opportunity through the nationalist Issarak movement in Cambodia. As France’s
concession of nominal independence in 1949 could not satisfy the interest of Cambodia
for complete independence, Ho Chi Minh took this opening to supply the movement
with military instructors and units (Thee 1979). This has literally shown the early sign
of the Vietnam factor in influencing Cambodia’s external policies, even in its early days.

After the 1954 Geneva Accord, the region was divided into four “states”
namely North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (Fifield 1977). With it, the
Vietminh was left with an unfinished objective of unifying Vietnam under its rule. Hanoi
hence proceeded with armed struggles against Saigon in 1959 (Zhang 1996); leading
the region into its Second Indochina War. Being at the peripheries of the belligerents,
the war brought significant effects to Cambodia; especially in shaping its China policy.
Being relatively closer to the actual war- affected areas (in South Vietnam), Cambodia
received most of the brunt compared to its neighbouring country, Laos. The relationship
between Cambodia and South Vietnam turned sour as early as 1961, when Saigon
accused Cambodia of harbouring the Viet Cong (the revolutionary arms of the Vietminh
in South Vietnam), and its refusal to revoke its claim on numerous Cambodia islands
(Liefer 1963). In 1964, the conflict went a notch further when the accusations were
accompanied by air and ground raids in Cambodia’s territory (Simon 1964). It could
be suggested that this event promptly has made Cambodia looked for leverage against
Saigon. Smith (1968) argued that Cambodia started to have a closer relationship with
Peking and Hanoi due to these illegal incursions. This justified further the closeness as
reflected by Cambodia’s China policy, in the middle of this period. Besides that, this
also showed the first tendency of modern Cambodia in using its relation with China
vis-á-vis Vietnam.
As was mentioned above, the closeness in Cambodia’s China relations did not turn
up well for Cambodia. The Vietminh and Viet Cong eventually succeeded in affiliating
the local radicals into their ideologies (Smith 1968). As such, Cambodia’s counterbalance
act has failed and it could not openly admit that the Viet Cong was operating inside it.
On one hand, Sihanouk was cautious to the assumption of interventions by Washington
and Saigon in his state’s affair, should he confessed (Leifer 1975). One could conclude
that this stubborn stance of Sihanouk eventually prompted the US into helping Lon Nol
removal of Sihanouk in 1970. Hence, the level of sophistication of this Vietnam factor
also explained the fluctuation phase in Cambodia’s China policy.

After its communism gained its victory of Indochina in 1975, Vietnam consolidated
for a better position in the region. Its leading security concerns were the encirclement
by China through Cambodia, and to prevent Laos and Cambodia from becoming
springboards of insurgent attacks from the minorities on its border (Thee 1979: 98; Turley
1980). It could be understood that the only way to prevent these events, was for Vietnam
to implant subordinate regimes in both states. Seeing itself as the initiator to previous
regional struggles and in a better economic position, Vietnam began to exert its influences
actively on the region (Leifer 1975; Turley 1980). This assertiveness nonetheless was not
being passively accepted, especially by Cambodia. Vietnam and Cambodia were quickly
at each other’s throat after the communist victory in 1975. Turley (1980) argued that
“Khmer Rouge viewed Hanoi as the regional representative of hegemonic, bureaucratic
communism and Hanoi viewed Khmer Rouge as Maoist primitives”, denoting the hitherto
divisions in the communist world and Vietnam’s hegemonic aspiration. One could hence
insinuate that Vietnam saw Cambodia as Beijing’s tool to weaken its regional aspiration,
and Cambodia viewed Vietnam as Moscow’s instrument to dominate the region. China
was hence natural leverage for Cambodia vis-á-vis Vietnam, as they were in the same
camp. One could surmise that this event eventually became one of the main historical
baggage in Cambodia and Vietnam relations later.

Geo-Economic Considerations

Geo-economic considerations became influential to Cambodia’s China policy after the

end of Cold War in the 1990s. Cambodia’s hitherto economy was starved when Soviet’s
aids stopped and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was just three-quarter of its GDP in
1960’s (Brown 1992).
This presumably has led Cambodia to steer away from Marxist’s economy and started to
endorse economic liberation for a more comprehensive market economy in the early 1990’s
(Prasso 1994). China was thus considered a viable candidate due to its economic strength and
proximity. It could hence be inferred that the normalization of Cambodia’s China policy in the
third phase was partly due to this.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis has to some extent made Cambodia closer to China, but
the 2008 global economic crisis could be considered as one of the turning points in Cambodia’s
China policy. Geo-economic considerations have been the most influential factor that
influences Cambodia’s China policy afterward. Dubbed by economists as the worst financial
crisis since the Great Depression of 1930, the global financial crisis of 2008 wiped out $25
trillion from the value of the global stock market (Eigner 2015; Naudé 2009). Cambodia was
then hit with an unprecedented decline in its economic growth. For the first time, Cambodia
experienced negative economic growth of -2.7% (Chandler 2010). The forecasted growth of
Cambodia has also had fallen from more than 10% in 2007 to close to zero in 2009 (Te Velde
2012). Such economic difficulties would affect any states’ policies. It could hence be inferred
that Cambodia, facing such difficulties would have looked for a solution to their economic
issues. Having strengthened its relationship with China during the last period, the deepening
of this relationship afterward was one of the viable strategic options they had sought for.

It could be observed that due to this, Cambodia has also started to accommodate China
with political favour in exchange for some economic ones. Right after the crisis, Chen (2010)
argued that in 2009, when a group of Uighurs minority fled China to Cambodia seeking refuge,
Cambodia deported them back to China; prompting China to return this favour by signing 14
deals with Cambodia worth $1.2 billion. The US nonetheless condemned this decision and
suspended its approximately $55 million annual aids in 2010; to which China responded
by donating 257 Chinese military trucks a month later and expanded the relation beyond
economics with military cooperation (Chen 2010). Broadening the relation domains between
the two countries, Ciorciari (2014) argued that in 2011 China invested ten times what the US
has invested which was at approximately $1.9 billion during the same year, Cambodia’s GDP
was only at $13 billion. It thus could be deduced that, Cambodia’s economic considerations
have made deepened its relationship, and the US pressures has made Cambodia expanded it
to be more than just in the economic domain.
Domestic Politics

Domestic politics have always interpreted and intervened the systemic factors of Cambodia
ever since its early days of statehood. It however has become more dominant after the end
of Cold War. In 1991, all the major domestic factions contending for Cambodia negotiated
through Paris Peace Agreement, after Vietnam left (Brown 1992). The factions then began to
compromise each other’s position. Nonetheless, a power struggle occurred after the election
in 1993. Where the seating Prime Minister, Hun Sen refused to relinquish power to the
victorious Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leading Cambodia to a power-sharing system with
two Prime Ministers (Prasso 1994). Major rifts between the two eventually developed later
in 1996, due to their desire to strengthen each power base (Lizee 1997). China has always
had the intention to revive its diplomatic ties with Cambodia since the start of 1990’s but it
had perceived Hun Sen as being pro-Vietnam (Bert 1993). Lizee (1997: 71) argued that in
late 1995, China had made advances Ranariddh during his squabble with Hun Sen but it was
later abandoned due to perceived Ranariddh ties with Taiwan.

In 1996, after Beijing sent its top General to Phnom Penh and gave agreement on $1
million military aids package to Cambodia, Hun Sen took the opportunity to reciprocally go
to Beijing and signed several pacts in particular, a cooperation treaty between the Cambodia
People’s Party (CPP) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Lizee 1997: 70). It could
hence be suggested that, Hun Sen took China’s systemic incentives as his ticket for his party’s
performance legitimacy, especially when Cambodia was in dire need of economic support.
Hun Sen later placed a coup in 1997 over Ranariddh (Peou 1998) thus establishing himself
as the sole Prime Minister of Cambodia. It could be concluded that Hun Sen’s pragmatism
in using China’s incentives to ensure his regime survival in Cambodia’s inter-elite disputes,
as one of the keys in understanding the apparent closeness in Cambodia and China relation
the third phase.

Since then, domestic politics have affected Cambodia’s China policy and it could be
defined mostly by the elite’s desire for performance and nationalist legitimacy. Cambodia
has been affected significantly by the 2008 global economic crisis, as mentioned above.
Cambodia’s political climate was stable as Hun Sen managed to keep a tight grip on his
opponents (Chandler 2010). The generousness of China in providing aids with “no string
attached” could hence be suggested as the ruling party’s forte contributing to this political
stability. Ciorciari (2014) argued that since 1997, Cambodia’s elites have been able to
reap significant political and economic gain with tolerable cost in autonomy from these
investments. Due to this, the elites were taking turns from these Chinese investments to
enrich and politically-entrenched themselves, as pointed out by Lum et al (2008). One could
conclude that owing to all these factors, Cambodia’s elites have thus become increasingly
reliant on China’s aids; and therefore, the deepening and the accommodating stance in its
relations with China. The continuous aids given by China would keep the ruling elites happy
and the regime could maintain its performance legitimacy as resources were available even
when their own economy declined.


The main finding of this thesis is that while all regional states were under the same structural
pressures and incentives vis-à-vis a rising China, the Vietnam factor is greater in shaping
Cambodia’s China policy; partly due to the ruling elites differing degrees of tendencies
to mobilise their respective historical memory and nationalist sentiment, alongside
performance legitimacy, for preserving their authority and maintaining their power at home.
In this research, the Vietnam factor has been consistently apparent in affecting the policies of
regional states. However, the factor was greater in the case of Cambodia compared to other
states, for example Laos. It is observed, that this was due to the tendencies of Cambodia’s
ruling elites, in using the factor as an “instrument” to gain, maintain, strengthen or preserve
its nationalist and/or performance legitimacy; for their regime survival. As the Vietnam
factor carried along significant historical baggage, Cambodia’s elites would capitalise on it
by making a necessary interpretation, adjustment, increment or reduction of importance and
even compromise, in order to realise and justify their intended goals in Cambodia’s China
policy. For instance, it could be said that the current intended goal of Cambodia’s elites is
for continuous China investments, hence the Vietnam factor was interpreted to be bigger,
in order for them to justify Cambodia’s deepening relation with China to the population;
augmenting the ruling regime’s nationalist legitimacy and the prospect of continuous China
aid, that they were duly dependent on.
KUIK Cheng-Chwee is an associate professor at the Strategic Studies and International
Relations Program at the National University of Malaysia (UKM), and concurrently
an associate fellow at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya (UM).
Previously he was a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton-Harvard “China and
the World” Program at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Cheng-Chwee’s research concentrates on three clusters of thematic issues: weaker states’
alignment positions and great power politics (with a focus on Asian states’ hedging behavior),
domestic legitimation and foreign policy choices (with particular reference to China’s and
Southeast Asian states’ external policies), as well as the politics of multilateralism and its
impact on the evolving Asian architecture. He can be contacted at