China’s Gateway to Political Expansion:

A Case Study of Cambodia’s Faltering Democracy

Author: Blair Sullivan, Research Intern (Summer & Fall 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies


In just a few decades, China has transformed the global geopolitical landscape. Since joining the World Trade Organization as a member in 2001, China has achieved staggering economic growth and quickly leveraged this success to transform its diplomatic relations. Its booming economy allowed the nation to amass great regional and global influence, particularly with developing countries. While many thought China’s acceptance of globalization would lead to domestic liberalization and moderation, Beijing’s emergence as an influential global power has instead expanded its own illiberal sphere of influence. Since President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013, China has experienced an aggressive centralization of power and a vast domestic crackdown through domestic surveillance and the social credit system, the repression of ethnic minorities, and state control of the private sector. While Xi has restricted foreign influence and political and economic freedom at home, he actively seeks to shape international relations and export his political views and values around the world.

Despite its historical non-interference foreign policy, Beijing has redirected its international strategy under Xi, particularly in Southeast Asia, through its adoption of a peripheral diplomacy model. China’s new international outlook prioritizes implementing cooperative regional economic, political, and security projects all instrumental to Xi’s “Chinese Dream”.

Chinese soft power and sharp power have been the primary modes of influence employed to establish Xi’s “community of common destiny.” Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power” coined in 1990 still holds today, as demonstrated by China’s growing international and regional influence. President Xi Jinping spoke directly to this strategy in 2014 when he stated, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.” By using persuasion and attraction, rather than hard power coercion, China has received less opposition and resistance to its motives and desired outcomes. Alongside soft power influence, China has also adopted a “sharp power” foreign policy. This newly coined term by the National Endowment for Democracy highlights the space between soft and hard power as an authoritarian influence that “centers on distraction and manipulation… to pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries.” Both of these modes of influence are strategically used by China to suppress political freedom and pluralism domestically and internationally.

The Indo-Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia, has become a region of rapidly growing strategic significance. The region’s lack of a major superpower and its fluid geopolitical orientation has put it at the forefront of China’s foreign policy. While Beijing may not directly push its authoritarian model on the region, it disguises its efforts to do so through consistent engagement in countries of weak governance such as Cambodia.

Case study: Cambodia

Cambodia has had a long history of grappling with Chinese influence. Following America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, Phnom Penh fell to China-backed Khmer Rouge in 1975, crowding out the last of the United States-backed Khmer Republic. This communist push gave way to a complete systematic restructuring, modelled on Maoist China, and to the persecution and killing of millions in the Cambodian Genocide. Cambodia and China later renewed bilateral relations in 2010 with a comprehensive strategic partnership. However, over the last decade, Chinese authoritarian influence has again spread in Cambodia, fueling corruption and further weakening its fragile democracy.

Economic diplomacy has been the main driver of China’s soft power campaign in Cambodia. China is Cambodia’s largest source of Foreign Direct Investment, accounting for 43 percent in 2019, and leverages this economic power to solidify influence in Cambodia. Chinese investment is largely expressed through new institutions and infrastructure projects– most notably the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). With a largely agrarian-based, low-skilled economy, Cambodia has relied on Chinese investment projects to develop its economy. Enormous infrastructure projects, amounting to $5.3 billion in Chinese investments, are underway and have given jobs to 20,000 Cambodians. Despite the development that Chinese investments and loans have created, they have ultimately weakened Cambodia’s autonomy as the country has amassed over $4 billion in debt to Beijing, thus creating a debt-trap subjection. China’s economic influence and predatory lending practices have become campaigns for direct influence in Cambodian politics and governance, with Cambodia’s resources and other strategic assets included in the collateral.

Unlike its soft power influence and highly publicized development investments, China’s breach into Cambodia’s digital economy has been covert and gradual. With low digital literacy and only 40 percent of the population in Cambodia using the Internet, Cambodia lacks sophisticated digital infrastructure, allowing room for Chinese digital development as a conduit for strategic corruption. China has rebranded development investment toward digital economies through the Digital Silk Road’s low-cost information and communications technology (ICT) projects. Sharp power influence through control of Chinese ICT companies in Cambodia allows for the seemingly invisible surveillance, manipulation, and exploitation of digital information flows and “cyber sovereignty.” China’s cyber governance, which promotes and normalizes invasive and inhibiting cyber laws, has successfully taken root in Cambodia, as it directly plays into the strategic interests of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Democratic Deterioration

China’s soft and sharp power influence has led to a significant regression in Cambodians’ civil liberties and political rights, particularly from rising trends of autocracy, disinformation, political coercion, human rights violations, and corruption. With a low score of 21 out of 100 from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia’s faltering democracy offers China space to penetrate and dismantle the nation’s democracy from inside out.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the longest-serving leaders in the world, has led since 1985. Over the years, he has gained Beijing’s full support and in return has promoted Chinese interests domestically and abroad. Most notably, Cambodia’s position in ASEAN has become a conduit for China’s strategic ambitions; in 2016, Beijing pledged Cambodia $500 million in aid, and a week later Cambodia voted for continued Chinese military presence in the South China Sea. China’s authoritarian model appeals to political leaders, such as Hun Sen, whose political control is threatened by Western democratic institutions such as free speech, rule of law, and transparency.

Cambodia’s Flawed National Elections

Cambodia’s 2018 national election was arguably the most notable and visible example of China’s authoritarian model in Cambodia. Before the election, Hun Sen, with assistance from Beijing, made numerous strategic efforts to ensure his continued leadership. After the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute exposed Hun Sen’s undemocratic grip, the Prime Minister expelled the American election monitoring organization from Cambodia. This occurred alongside Chinese hacking of political groups and election entities opposing Hun Sen. Just before the election, Kem Sokha, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and other opposition party members were charged with treason and arrested, and the CNRP was dissolved by the Cambodian Supreme Court. The United States responded by cutting about $8.3 million in election assistance, though shortly after, Beijing added $20 million of election equipment to its prior $11 million donation. In the final 48 hours before the elections, the Cambodian government blocked independent news websites including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and Voice of Democracy, and by the end of the election, the CPP “won” all 125 seats in parliament, making Cambodia a de facto one party state.

Evidence of Chinese influence and political deterioration is indisputable as the country regresses towards autocracy. Perhaps the most significant autocratic incursion has been the repression of fundamental civil liberties such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The suppression of the media and press escalated with a new lèse-majesté law in 2018, criminalizing any sentiment insulting the monarch, as well as the permanent discontinuation of independent newspapers and broadcasting such as The Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. China has used its sharp power influence and Cambodia’s weak digital infrastructure to fill this void with Chinese state-run media outlets like China Daily and The Global Times.

Pandemic Power

While fundamental civil liberties such as freedom of the press are particularly crucial in a global crisis, Covid-19 has widened the gap for corruption and Chinese authoritarian influence.The Cambodian government has leveraged Covid-19 to assume greater control and curtail liberties such as freedom of expression and association through numerous arrests of opposition supporters and journalists for spreading “fake news.” Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the government has arrested over 30 government dissenters, 12 of which having connections to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). Under the pretense of a national response to Covid-19, the government even drafted a ‘Law on National Administration in the State of Emergency’ that could further violate basic freedoms through restrictions on media and unlimited telecommunications surveillance. As the first leader to visit China after the outbreak, Hun Sen has given into China’s strategic pandemic diplomacy and plans to deepen their “steadfast friendship.”


China’s continued influence in Cambodia and Southeast Asia poses numerous threats inimical to the region’s balance of power, political orientation, and partnerships with the West. An American response thus remains crucial to preserve political and economic sovereignty and democratic governance in the region and prove the strength of a rules-based order, even in China’s sphere of influence. Recommendations for the U.S. response include:

  1. Provide alternative sources of support

Chinese investment has given countries like Cambodia the ability to enhance infrastructure development and other opportunities otherwise unavailable to them. The U.S. needs to increase its economic and diplomatic presence in the region, particularly through partnerships and programs mentioned in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. One example is the Blue Dot Network led by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). It needs to enhance its approach to the region to combat foreign authoritarian influence with particular focus on responsible infrastructure investment and digital connectivity. The U.S. should work with allies in bilateral and multilateral economic engagement efforts across economic, diplomatic, and military domains to crowd out authoritarian predatory practices.

  • Ensure support and protection for civil society and impose human rights safeguards in all internet-related laws and practices

The U.S. must use its partnerships and influence to support fundamental civil liberties andadherence to international standards, particularly in inclusive internet policies. Previous initiatives includes the 2018 Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP) that works to foster democratic principles through increasing engagement in an open, secure, and transparent Internet. Efforts must pave the way for grassroots movements by targeting younger generations averse to Hun Sen, particularly youth and the 50 percent of the population that is under 22 years old. The United States and its allies must also ensure the freedom of convicted journalists and political opposition.

  • Use institutions to build, support, and hold democratic infrastructure accountable

A values-based democratic foreign policy and the promotion of institutions, rules, and norms protecting liberal values are essential to insulate vulnerable democracies from authoritarian exploitation. The United States should strengthen existing international and domestic institutions and programs to support democratic values such as the Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative, to “promote civil society, the rule of law, and transparent and accountable governance in the Indo-Pacific region.” Efforts must be made to guarantee electoral integrity, to strengthen and protect civil society, and to establish democratic solidarity in the region.

Cambodia is not the first case of illiberal interference and exploitation of weak democratic infrastructure. The United States must renew its commitment to democracy both domestically and internationally. America must support Cambodia and other democracies threatened by illiberal influence and specifically empower younger generations and embolden civic sentiment.