Cambodians Nod Towards China as Strong International Ally

Cambodians lean towards China when it comes to choosing a strong international partner for trade, foreign policy and the economy, a report has revealed
Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Hun Sen at a gala dinner in Phnom Penh. Kiripost via SPM Page
Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Hun Sen at a gala dinner in Phnom Penh. Kiripost via SPM Page

China has emerged as the leading nation and strongest international partner to Cambodia in terms of trade, foreign policy and the economy, according to the respondents of a survey by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS).

The recent ‘What do Cambodians Think? Insights and attitudes towards society and politics in Cambodia’ report surveyed 1,015 Cambodians aged 18 to 64 in Phnom Penh, Svay Rieng, Ratanakiri, Kampong Thom and Koh Kong in October 2020.

It aimed to unveil opinions on a raft of topics, including which countries are regarded as solid partners on the international stage, the biggest issues Cambodians face in their daily lives, voting habits in the next general elections, media consumption, and the European Union.

As diplomatic ties further tighten between Cambodia and China, with investment continuing to be pumped into the Kingdom alongside various strategic partnerships being forged, the survey reveals that the majority of respondents believe China is the best partner for trade (46 percent), foreign policy (38 percent) and people (44 percent).

Japan and the USA – both major foreign aid donors after China – also ranked highly.

Trade

Women quizzed were less likely to name China as a solid trading partner, with 39 percent naming the nation compared with 53 percent of men. Instead, women cited Thailand as a better option (41 percent). In addition, people aged 18 to 24 also believe Thailand is a good trade partner for Cambodia (47 percent compared to 38 percent overall).

While China dominated overall, the top choice varied depending on area. Kampong Thom, Koh Kong, and Ratanakiri respondents quoted Thailand as the best partner (45, 42 and 48 percent respectively), while those in Phnom Penh felt the USA and Japan are more suitable partners (35 and 26 percent respectively, compared to 25 and 21 percent overall).

Foreign policy & economics

When asked about foreign policy, there were also notable differences between gender, with women less likely than men to think that China is a good partner (30 percent compared to 47 percent). Respondents living in Ratanakiri believe neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand (25 and 24 percent respectively, compared to 12 and 18 percent overall) are the best partners for public policy.

Less than half of those surveyed (44 percent) felt that China is the best partner in terms of infrastructure, the economy and public services. This was followed by Japan (38 percent) and the USA (25 percent).

The report noted, “Interestingly, those who felt their life had grown worse over the past five were less likely to think that China is a good partner for Cambodia in all areas: trade, diplomacy and people.”

It added, “While many can articulate their views on the best foreign partner for Cambodia, it is unclear from this research how much exposure people in Cambodia have to other countries. Many Cambodians have not travelled outside of the country (80 percent) or region (19 percent), yet internet and social media penetration continue to grow, which suggests that there is indeed exposure to other countries, at least via the media.”

The European Union

Respondents were also surveyed on the European Union (EU) and their awareness of it. When asked what thoughts ‘’Europe’’ evokes, the most common reactions were ‘’developed economy’’ and ‘’progress across all sectors’’.

While Cambodians look favourably upon the relationship with the EU (81 percent), awareness was limited. A total of 44 percent said they had heard of the EU while 56 percent had not. Men (54 percent) had more awareness than women (34 percent).

“Those that do have a positive view of their countries' relationship with the EU, evoking notions of better employment opportunities, economic prosperity, better access to education, and equal opportunities for women,” the report noted.

Less than half (43 percent) quizzed were aware of the implications of the EU’s decision to rescind its ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement with Cambodia.

Politics & society

The survey also revealed that 95 percent of respondents said they intend to cast their vote in the 2023 general election. About half claimed to care about politics – a figure that was higher among younger people. The quality valued in candidates most was the ability to bring about real change in communities, while a correlation was noted between social media use and interest in politics.

When asked about civic engagement, the overall response was passive. A total of 91 percent considered “respecting the law” as their contribution to society. Respondents in Ratanakiri ranked the highest with regard to engaging in civic or voluntary activities (68 percent compared to 40 percent overall).

Despite the pandemic and other global crises impacting livelihoods, 53 percent of respondents feel their lives have improved during the last five years. The top issues most concerning Cambodians were flooding (65 percent), Covid-19 (56 percent) and the Cambodian economy (21 percent). In addition, 49 percent cited peace and security as an issue (49 percent), followed by health services and corruption (both 42 percent), and land rights (37 percent).

The report concluded, “The findings of this survey demonstrate that most Cambodians seem to value maintaining the status quo overtaking any perceived risks. Cambodians are preoccupied with keeping their current standard of living and at best aiming for personal advancement through education and economic progress."

“This is mirrored both on the domestic as well as the international political stage, with respondents preferring actors that have a direct positive impact on their immediate environment and themselves.”