Cambodia’s Strategic Overture to France and the EU: Caught Between Geopolitics and Human Rights

Relations between the EU, especially France, and Cambodia have been more strained in recent years due to the EU’s criticism of Cambodia’s human rights and democratic environment. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet’s visit to France on 18-19 January 2024 represented a turning point in the bilateral relations between the two nations.

The Joint Declaration, issued on 19 January 2024, underscored the shared commitment of both leaders to deepen and diversify cooperation across cultural, diplomatic, investment and defence areas. While it underlines France’s commitment to enhance its connections with ASEAN countries under its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the visit could also pave the way for improved relations between Cambodia and the European Union. 

EU-Cambodia relations 

In recent years, bilateral relations between the EU and Cambodia have been rather tense. Since the coup d’état by former Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in 1997, Cambodia has been on an intricate political trajectory, despite the democratic commitments outlined in both the Paris Peace Agreements and the Cambodian Constitution. The trend has been increasingly apparent since the early 2000s, with a noticeable decline in liberal values, political pluralism, democratic institutions, and the respect for human rights within the country. 

Despite the EU’s continuous presence in Cambodia since 1991, the country’s crackdown on the opposition during the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 general elections marked a critical turning point. During this period, the ruling CPP increased the distress towards political opponents and independent media outlets, forcing newspapers like The Cambodia Daily to shut down. Hun Sen also expelled US Peace Corps volunteers, triggering US sanctions in 2019 against senior Cambodia officials. Leaders from the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), were arrested and banned from political activity for several years, ultimately resulting in the dissolution of the CNRP, effectively establishing Cambodia as a one-party state, leaving no space for political opposition or freedom of expression in the country. This stands in stark contradiction with the EU’s foundational principles of “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” Consequently, the events precipitated a human rights-based dispute between the EU and Cambodia, with far-reaching implications for their trade and economic relations.

In November 2018, the EU initiated a process to withdraw Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) benefits, which led to the decision in February 2020 to partially suspend Cambodia’s trade privileges under the EBA scheme. Established in 2001, the EBA preferential trade scheme is an EU initiative whereby all imports from least developed countries (LDCs) to the EU are duty-free and quota-free, excluding arms and ammunition. The EBA status is contingent upon compliance with the principles of 15 UN/International Labour Organization conventions on core human and labour rights. It can be partially or fully withdrawn from a beneficiary country in the event of “serious and systematic violation” of these principles. 

The EBA held high importance for the Cambodian economy, particularly for the garment industry and its extensive workforce. It facilitated an export surge, sustaining annual economic growth at a steady 7 percent and playing a pivotal role in lifting millions of people out of poverty. The partial suspension of the EBA has jeopardised job security for workers, posing a threat to the country’s overall economic growth, while straining relations with the EU. To mitigate the adverse effects of the partial EBA withdrawal and bolster economic resilience, Phnom Penh has further diversified its economic partners and leveraged stronger ties with China. The Chinese intensified aid and trade efforts, exemplified by initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Cambodia Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect on 1 January 2022, played a significant role in mitigating the economic losses stemming from the partial withdrawal from the EBA scheme. Cambodia’s reliance on other influential actors such as China for economic and political support has diminished the impact of external pressure from Western nations, underscoring the limitations in the EU’s leverage to compel the Cambodian government to implement substantive changes. 

Despite concerns of Cambodia’s July 2023 general election being “conducted in a restricted political and civic space, where the opposition, civil society and the media were unable to function effectively without hindrance”, the EU remains a major development partner for Cambodia, serving as a vital trade and investment partner. The EU is involved in a wide range of areas in the country, including green transition, youth and education, connectivity, governance and private sector development. Recently, in March 2024, as part of the EU Global Gateway strategy, Brussels and Phnom Penh inaugurated the “Education for Green and Digital Jobs” program, alongside two Team Europe Initiatives: “Green Agribusiness and Decent Jobs” and “Green Factories and Decent Jobs .”

Cambodia now seeks to strike a more nuanced balance among major players and may establish a stronger European presence in its strategic approach. Indeed, during the 24th ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting and 3rd EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum (EU-IPMF), held in Brussels on 1-2 February 2024 Cambodian Foreign minister Sok Chenda Sophea reaffirmed Cambodia’s dedication to enhancing the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership. Additionally, he emphasised Cambodia’s readiness to collaborate with member states from both blocs to foster regular leadership-level engagements, aiming to elevate relations to unprecedented heights. 

During the recent 12th Cambodia-European Union joint committee meeting, convened in Brussels on 24-25 April 2024, senior officials from both Cambodia and the EU expressed their steadfast commitment to strengthen the Cambodia-EU partnership across bilateral and multilateral frameworks. Emphasising a shared vision for progress, they underscored their intent to broaden cooperation in new priority areas, notably green growth and digital technology.

Besides, the EU could emerge as a viable global partner for Cambodia, particularly in upholding international law and multilateralism, which are facing increasing challenges posed by Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas conflict, and the crisis in the Red Sea. For instance, Cambodia’s principled stance against the war in Ukraine, its co-sponsorship of UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia, its support for Ukraine’s expedited accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and its provision of demining assistance to Ukraine all align with the EU’s position.

Cambodia’s Strategic Overture to France

Strengthening Bilateral cooperation

Yet, each EU member state pursues its own policies. France, for example, has improved relations with Phnom Penh since late 2022. Three high-level visits have since then occurred, including those of former Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamon in 2023, and most recently, Prime Minister Manet’s visit to Paris in January 2024, upon invitation by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The deep-rooted relationship between the two nations dates back to the colonial era, when Cambodia was a French protectorate from 1863 until 1953. This bond was further strengthened by France’s pivotal role in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which brought an end to the tragic bloodshed in Cambodia. Additionally, the significant support provided by the French Development Agency (AFD) underscores France’s commitment to fostering peace, stability, democracy, and socio-economic advancement in the country.

France was the first European country Manet has officially visited since taking office in August 2023. Manet’s visit to France concluded with commitments from both sides to strengthen cooperation in various areas, including health, education, trade, investment, and defence. Additionally, both sides pledged to enhance collaboration in the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage, and President Macron reaffirmed his support for Cambodia’s bid to host the 2026 Francophone Summit. Furthermore, following the rapid evolution of the bilateral relationship witnessed over recent months, Paris and Phnom Penh have raised the prospect of elevating their ties to strategic partnership status, representing the highest level of diplomatic relations. However, specifics regarding the scope and timeline of this proposed ‘strategic’ upgrade are yet to be clarified. If realised, this elevation would position France as Cambodia’s fourth strategic partner, following Thailand, China, and Japan.

Mutual benefits 

Cambodia’s strategic overture to France under its new government is motivated by a combination of economic, geopolitical, and domestic political factors. First of all, as part of its Economic Diplomacy Strategy (EDS) 2021-2023, aimed at attracting and diversifying global trade, tourism and foreign direct investment, Manet met with companies such as VINCI Group, TotalEnergies, Accor Group and Alstom during his Paris trip. Cambodia is intensifying its economic relations with France to attract greater private sector investment across various sectors, including aviation, tourism, railways, renewable energy, and digital technology. Regarding Cambodia’s development goals, the AFD has always played an important role. Currently, the main AFD’s activities aim to support the country in its low-carbon transition, to make its territories more resilient to climate change, to improve its regional integration and competitiveness, and to promote the blue economy and sustainable water management. During Cambodia’s Prime Minister’s visits to France, a 235 million USD aid agreement for drinking water and energy infrastructure development, as well as vocational training, was signed between the AFD and Phnom Penh.

From a foreign affairs perspective, France is a major player in international affairs as a global nuclear power and founding member of the EU. As emphasised by Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, strengthening ties with France could serve as a catalyst for enhancing Cambodia’s political and economic relations with the European Union as well as expanded partnerships with other member states. Additionally, it serves as a gateway to the West in terms of politics, diplomacy, and strategy, as well as trade and investment exchanges. Cambodia and France, as well as the EU, share a common position on strengthening multilateralism and cooperation to maintain and promote peace, stability, and prosperity in the world and in Southeast Asia. Therefore, deeper engagement with France has the potential to bolster overall relations between the EU and Cambodia, positioning France as a valuable bridge between the two entities.

France’s engagement with Cambodia is not solely rooted in historical ties but is largely driven by geopolitical strategic interests. Amidst growing tensions and uncertainties, Cambodia’s strategic geographic location presents France with an opportunity to enhance and solidify its presence in the region, aligning with its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. For France, Cambodia holds significant importance as a partner in advocating for a more assertive presence in mainland Southeast Asia and in fostering engagement with ASEAN, particularly in light of China’s growing influence in the region. Furthermore, France’s reciprocal embrace of Cambodia reflects its intention to bolster its economic, cultural, and diplomatic influence in the ASEAN region and the broader Indo-Pacific.  France and ASEAN seek to align their respective Indo-Pacific Strategy and ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific to promote common interests in regional connectivity, maritime security and sustainable development.

Challenges in Addressing Human Rights and Political Freedom

France’s receptiveness toward Cambodia underscores the delicate balance between navigating geopolitical interests and upholding human rights principles. Paris has frequently voiced concerns regarding the state of Cambodian democracy, especially following the dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017. These concerns intensified with the arrest and 27-year prison sentence of its leader Kem Sokha and the ban of the Candlelight Party from participating in the 2023 general elections, as well as the 25-year prison sentence of opposition figure Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile in France and had called on voters to cast invalid ballot papers. It has also consistently called for the release of jailed opposition politicians and urged Cambodia to adhere to its democratic obligations under international agreements and domestic law. Nonetheless, despite advocating for the restoration of democracy and the respect for fundamental human rights in Cambodia, France aims to avoid jeopardising its geopolitical strategic interests and bilateral cooperation,  particularly amidst escalating tensions in the Indo-Pacific region. 

On the other hand, the EU has acknowledged the limited impact of its trade sanctions on Cambodian domestic politics and has adopted a cautious “wait-and-see” approach, especially following the ascension of Hun Manet to power. Given his Western education,  there was hope that his entry into power could lead to positive changes in the political landscape, potentially paving the way for a more stable bilateral relationship. However, this remains uncertain as major changes have yet to be made. Former Cambodian PM Hun Sen, who ruled the country for nearly forty years and who is the father of the current PM Hun Manet, still retains control over the ruling CPP. In April 2024, he assumed the role of President of the Senate, an honorary position that allows him to maintain his grip on politics, making him ​​number 2 in protocol after King Norodom Sihamoni, whom he also  replaces as Head of State when the latter is travelling abroad. 

The dynastic succession of Prime Ministers is reflected in the generational shift within the new Hun Manet government. For instance, the new defence minister, Tea Seiha, is the son of the long-serving former defence minister Tea Banh, who was appointed in 1986; while the new minister of commerce, Cham Nimol, is the daughter of Cham Prasidh, who led the ministry from 1994 to 2013. Similarly, the minister in charge of civil services is Hun Manet’s younger brother, Hun Manith. These appointments underscore the significance of having powerful parents in Cambodia, a nation governed by familial ties. The culture of respecting elders would act as a deterrent against any change that might be perceived as criticism. 

Despite the authoritarian regime in Cambodia, which starkly contrasts with European ideals, the EU has chosen to keep a silent voice on human rights and rule of law violations in exchange for support against Russia. Since Hun Manet’s assumption as Prime Minister Cambodia’s democratic donors and international partners, caught in between human rights and geopolitical choices, seem to have largely set aside differences and concerns over political freedom and human rights in favour of focusing on strategic choices and areas of cooperation such as renewable energy and sustainability, as is the case for the EU and some of its member states, like France.

Author: Gabrielle Godard, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: unsplash