China and Cambodia: Patron and Client?

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Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy University of Michigan IPC Working Paper Series Number 121

CHINA AND CAMBODIA: PATRON AND CLIENT?
John D. Ciorciari June 14, 2013

1

CHINA AND CAMBODIA: PATRON AND CLIENT?
By John D. Ciorciari *

International Policy Center Working Paper No. 121 Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan June 14, 2013

Abstract
In recent years, Cambodia has become one of China’s closest international partners and diplomatic allies. Cambodia’s recent support for China during multilateral talks on the South China Sea has demonstrated the strength of the partnership and led some critics to depict Cambodia as a Chinese “client state.” This paper examines the extent to which that label is valid. In its ideal form, a patron-client relationship entails an asymmetric exchange of benefits, typically including material support and protection from the stronger state and a degree of deference and political support from its weaker partner. This deference, which reduces the weaker state’s autonomy and often generates political backlash, is what makes governments reluctant to embrace client state status. This paper argues that the Sino-Cambodian relationship has strengthened largely because China has offered Cambodia’s governing elites a favorable bargain, providing extensive economic and political benefits without demanding costly forms of political fealty in return. That has begun to change, however. Cambodia’s governing elites have become more dependent on China, more beholden to Beijing’s policy preferences, and more closely identified with China by critics at home and abroad. The relationship has thus taken on an increasing patron-client character, exposing Cambodia to the downside risks inherent in such an arrangement and auguring poorly for the future if current trends continue.

In July 2012, the foreign ministers…...

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