Cambodia Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

According to abbreviationfinder, Cambodia is a nation in Southeastern Asia. Its capital city is Phnom Penh. Cambodia is sandwiched between two political and cultural superpowers in the region – Thailand and Vietnam – and has throughout history struggled to preserve their identity and self-government. Relations with neighboring countries have always been tense. Cambodia has also, in modern times, fallen victim to the war of global powers. In recent years, ties with China have strengthened as relations with the Western world deteriorate.

cambodia military spending and defense budget

Since 1999 Cambodia has been a member of the regional cooperation organization Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). The country is believed to have been interested in membership not least as protection against Thailand and Vietnam, both of which are also members. At the same time, Cambodia has become increasingly dependent on China – which is not a member of ASEAN – and foreign policy is part of a balance between ASEAN and China.

  • Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Cambodia for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.

There is a cultural boundary between Cambodia and Vietnam that Vietnam has tried to transcend for centuries by colonizing Cambodia and assimilating the Khmer population. After the 1979 invasion, when Vietnam expelled the Red Khmer, many Vietnamese immigrated to Cambodia to work. In addition, there were up to 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers in the country (see Modern History).

The Vietnamese occupation ended in 1989, but the suspicion against the neighboring country remains high and has been exploited by various political factions in Cambodia. The opposition often plays on anti-Vietnamese sentiments with threats of mass immigration, territorial claims and economic power. However, the government, dominated by the CPP party with roots in the Vietnam-backed regime after 1979, has a closer relationship with the neighbor. In 2005, Cambodia signed a border agreement with Vietnam. The agreement adjusted the border in six places and meant that Cambodia handed over smaller areas to the neighboring country.

Conflicts with Thailand

Thailand and Cambodia have much in common culturally, but political relations are obscured by several conflicts. Cambodia has difficulty forgetting Thailand’s support for weapons and transport to the Red Khmer during the 1975-1979 terror. How sensitive the relationship is when Cambodian crowds in 2003 set fire to the Thai embassy and vandalized Thai hotels, shops and restaurants in Phnom Penh after reports that a Thai movie star said Cambodia had stolen Angkor Vat Temple from Thailand.

Relations between Cambodia and Thailand reached a low-water mark in the fall of 2009 when the CPP government engaged Thailand’s exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as economic adviser. Thailand’s request to have Thaksin extradited was dismissed by Phnom Penh stating that the corruption verdict against him in his home country was “politically motivated”. However, Thaksin’s stay in Cambodia was short, only five days. In August 2010, Thaksin resigned from the disputed post and the diplomatic relations were restored.

With Thailand, Cambodia has also disagreed with an area around the temple ruins at Preah Vihear. Already in 1962, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the ruins belong to Cambodia, but the border demarcation in the area remained unclear. When the UN agency Unesco in 2008 included Preah Vihear on its World Heritage list, nationalist sentiments were swollen and troops were mobilized on both sides of the border. For a number of years, there were varied negotiations and screenings at the border. In 2011, the situation intensified with fighting in several places along the border, with dozens of dead soldiers as a result. Following international mediation, the parties agreed at the end of the year to withdraw their troops from the border. In November 2013, the ICJ decided that the disputed land areas around Preah Vihear belong to Cambodia, a decision that cannot be appealed and which both countries said they would accept.

Cambodia’s relations with Thailand were strained once again in May 2014 when Thaksin’s Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was deposed as prime minister of Thailand in a military coup. The situation improved in December 2015 when Hun Sen visited Thailand for the first time in a decade and held talks with Thai colleague General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

China important partner

China supported the Red Khmer for a long time, but oscillated in the early 1990s and offered the Cambodian government military and financial support. Prime Minister Hun Sen has in recent years brought his country closer to China, which is now the main partner in aid, trade, investment and military support (see below). In particular, following the election victory contested by the Western world in 2013, the CPP government has become more closely associated with China, not least financially with support for primarily infrastructure and irrigation.

When Cambodia was Asean’s chairman in 2012, the country was accused of supporting China – and thereby safeguarding its own interests – instead of solidifying with other Asean members. The conflict involved disputed islands in the South China Sea.

With Laos, a dispute has arisen because of the neighboring country’s plans for a hydroelectric plant at Don Sahong in the Mekong River, very close to the border. Cambodians fear that construction can have devastating environmental consequences and disrupt important fishing. Cambodia, together with Thailand and Vietnam, is calling on the Laotians to stop the project.

Cool relationship with the west

Relations with the United States have long been strained. The countries’ opinions have been divided, among other things, on the fight against drugs and the establishment of the Red Khmer Tribunal, when the United States seems to have seen Cambodia acting too slowly. Nevertheless, the United States is among the most important donors.

As the CPP government from the 2013 elections acted increasingly repressively against opposition, independent media and civil society, relations with both the US and the EU deteriorated. The United States reacted strongly to the Supreme Court’s decision in November 2017 to dissolve Cambodia’s only significant opposition party, the CNRP, and demanded that the decision be revoked. Similar reactions came from the EU. Hun Sen responded by accusing the US of supporting the opposition’s attempt to “overthrow the CPP government” and he threatened to forge stronger ties with Russia and China.

The Washington government subsequently withdrew all financial support for the Cambodian election in July 2018 when it was considered that it was no longer capable of being free and fair. Hun Sen asked the United States to cease all forms of aid to Cambodia. In December, the United States decided to deport 70 Cambodians who resided illegally in the country and announced that it would be more difficult for Cambodian “individuals undermining Cambodian democracy” to obtain entry visas to the United States. In December, the EU also withdrew its support for the elections. In February 2018, the United States withdrew some assistance to state agencies such as the Tax Agency and the military. In June, the United States imposed sanctions on the head of Hun Sen’s bodyguard, which Washington accused of violating human rights.

Refugee agreement with Australia

With Australia, in the fall of 2014, the CPP government signed a contentious refugee agreement. This means that Cambodia can receive asylum seekers who have tried to get to Australia by boat. In return, Cambodia received a $ 40 million grant in Australian aid. The agreement received sharp criticism from, among other things, the UN and human rights organizations who believe that Cambodia does not have the capacity to accept asylum seekers and deficiencies in respect for human rights.

Despite the criticism, in May 2015, Cambodia accepted four refugees who agreed to be transferred from a detention camp in Nauru in the Pacific since being denied an asylum application in Australia. Already a year later, all four had chosen to return to their respective countries. At the beginning of 2018, only three new refugees had been transferred from Nauru to Cambodia.


The armed forces were severely lost during the 1990s and 2000s to adapt them to peacetime. With the help of aid, Cambodia is trying to collect and destroy the hundreds of thousands of weapons that have been in operation in the country since the conflict years. Since 2006, formal 18-month compulsory military service applies to men aged 18 to 30 years.

China and Cambodia have been conducting joint military exercises since 2016, while the United States and Cambodia canceled their military exercises in 2017 and 2018. The following year, China pledged around $ 100 million in support to modernize and train Cambodia’s defense.


Army: 75,000 men (2017)

The air Force: 1,500 men (2017)

The fleet: 2,800 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 2.1 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 9.0 percent (2017)