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Conversation with Dr Peou Sorpong: Is China Really an 'Iron Friend' of the CPP?

Conversation with Dr Peou Sorpong: Is China Really an 'Iron Friend' of CPP?

The Cambodian Daily's Idea Talk, August 26, 2019

Dr Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies. He is also a College Fellow at McLaughlin College, York University, Toronto, and a Member of the Eminent Persons Group at the Asian Political and International Studies Association. He is also a former President of Science for Peace, based at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Some of his many books are International Democracy Assistance for Peacebuilding: Cambodia and Beyond. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; Intervention and Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? NY, Singapore and Thailand: St. Martin Press and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Silkworm, 2000; Cambodia: Change and Continuity in Contemporary Politics, ed. Aldershot, UK: International Library of Social Change in Asia Pacific, Ashgate, 2000.


Only one country cannot help Cambodia because Cambodia can maintain its internal and external stability and peace by making more friends around the world.

Being a small country with internal pressure and weakness, Cambodia could be dragged into a conflict of other countries.

Geographically, Cambodia sits on a geopolitical rivalry. Cambodia if not carefully would be used as the battlefield of the superpowers.

Why the USA could let bygones be bygones in its adversary with Vietnam in the past and be its ally but not Cambodia? Cambodia indeed has a little interest for the United States whereas Vietnam is the United States’s alliance in its Indo-Pacific strategic policy. Vietnam with almost 100 million of the population is stronger than Cambodia. Its historical antagonism with China could naturally be the United States strategic instrument.

It is difficult for a small country like Cambodia to avoid Vietnam influence. It is natural that the strong countries like Vietnam expanding their influence to the neighbouring countries. China, however, can help Cambodia in counterbalancing Vietnam.

But if Cambodia maintains its good relationship with only China it’s not good. China is not only a true friend of Cambodia.

Can China help the CPP to maintain its power in Cambodian politics? It depends on the fact that CPP could serve China’s interest. Every country indeed puts its national interest before other interest. China used to support the Khmer Rough but later on, it stopped supporting the Khmer Rouge and cementing a good relationship with the CPP. China will not consistently maintain relations with only one party.

China’s foreign policy is very pragmatic. It will protect a party in another country only if its national interest is protected by that party. If its national interest is not protected, it will change its policy accordingly. Hence, China remains a guardian of authoritarian CPP as long as the CPP protects its interest.

What is the problem if Cambodia getting too close to China given that Vietnam used to be Cambodia’s traditional alliance. Of course, Vietnam is not happy with that. China can help reduce Vietnam influence in Cambodia because China is stronger than Vietnam.

But, as long as Cambodia is getting too close to communist China, Cambodia will not be able to forge its good relationship with the West. Cambodia should not be the only friend with China and enemy of the West. Because western countries can provide aid and assistance to Cambodia.

However, allying with China can serve the CPP interest in Cambodian domestic politics. Party survival is of paramount importance in Cambodian domestic politics at this stage. The CPP, therefore, will do whatever it can maintain its hold on power for it fears that it would be taken revenge if it lost its power.

Therefore, it is important that Cambodian politicians should build political trust. Traditionally, acts of revenge and accusations hinder national unity. Trust-building can be developed by power-sharing. However, trust-building is very different in the Cambodian political arena and it requires long term process. But the first step is to stop personal accusations of each other and second power-sharing. At the same time, political dialogue can help build trust.

However, the trust will not last long if the state institutions are weak. In Cambodia, even neighbours have not trusted with one another considering that they build a great wall with the next door. But in a developed world people can call 911 for help in an emergency. Their state institutions will help its citizens in time of crisis.

In Cambodia, it is about survival politics. When a leader is feeling insecure, it is easy for him to be lured by other countries in seeking their help. The leader needs personal security and regime security. If we do not trust each other we will be influenced by other countries. Hence, the opposition party and the ruling party should find a way to work together.

Cambodia’s next generation may be able to build trust if we think about it seriously. But If we keep accusing each other ‘you are traitor’ we cannot make peace and build political trust.

For the next generation, If we do not find a way to build trust, harmony and national unity are ‘the worthless words’.

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