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Three Decades of Cambodian-German Diplomatic Relations New Historical Height, Progresses, and Ways Forward

On 3 October 2023, Cambodia and Germany commemorated the 30th anniversary of their bilateral diplomatic relations. The two nations’ bilateral ties date back to the 19th century when Adolf Bastian, a German polymath, visited Angkor and brought Cambodia’s cultural richness to the attention of Kaiser Wilhem II of the Imperial Germany. After gaining full independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was recognized as a state by the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1956 and by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1959. As a neutral country, Cambodia recognized the two German states and subsequently established diplomatic ties with FRG and GDR. Cambodia and GDR had consular relations in 1961 and the first consular office in 1967, while Cambodia and FRG established the official diplomatic ties in 1967.

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However, due to the growing geopolitical rivalry, Cambodia’s internal political instability, and shifts intheir diplomatic stances at the height of the Cold War, the two nations’ bilateral ties were suspendedin 1969. In 1991, the unified Germany resumed its diplomatic relations with the Supreme NationalCouncil of Cambodia, and both countries re-established full diplomatic relations and reopened theGerman Embassy in Phnom Penh on 3rd October 1993.

In the post-Cold War era, the Cambodian-German relations have been gradually ameliorated as thetwo countries have strengthened political, economic, and socio-cultural cooperation. At the politicallevel, both governments usually hold bilateral ministerial meetings and attend multilateral platforms,aiming to promote regional and international peace and security, support rule-based internationalorder, and promote economic prosperity. As of the first half of 2023, the two countries’ trade inmerchandise alone reached approximately USD 436 million, establishing Cambodia as Germany’ssecond largest trading partner in the EU. Moreover, by 2023, Germany has disbursed more thanUSD 570 million to the country on priority areas, particularly public health, social protection, ruraldevelopment, good governance, cultural heritage conservation, and environmental protection. Therecent three-day visit of Frank-Walter Steinmeier in February 2023, the first President of the FederalRepublic of Germany to visit the Kingdom, signifies the effort to strengthen the bilateral ties. Asemphasized by President Steinmeier, the visit “opens a golden page of the excellent bilateral relationsbetween the two countries”, setting a new historic milestone for reinvigorating the Cambodian-German diplomatic ties.


Photo Courtesy: German Embassy Cambodia, February 2023
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Samdach Vibol Sena Pheakdei Say Chhum, Cambodian Acting Head of State and President of the Senate during his visit to Cambodia in February 2023.

Historical Context and Progress

Even though Cambodia and Germany are apartby geographical distance, yet both countriesshare several key similarities. The most notablecommonality is that both nations successfullytransformed from a genocidal regime to“peace, national reconciliation anddevelopment.” In the early 1990s, Germanyachieved full national unification following thefall of the Berlin Wall in the aftermath of theCold War, while Cambodia and other 18countries signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1991 and successfully held its first post-ColdWar general election in 1993. Both nationswent through an enduring path to fully obtainthe national reconciliation, peace, stability, anddevelopment they are enjoying today. This isnot merely a symbolic coincidence, but ratheran excellent example of the hard-won peacethat must be preserved at all costs.

In addition, Cambodia and Germany share asimilar aspiration and political vision for a “rule-based order” or “liberal international order(ILO)” and multilateralism as enshrined in theprinciples of their foreign policies. Shaped bythe common history of conflict and internalinstability, the two countries have beencommitted and dedicated to promoting therules-based world order to regulate statebehaviors, manage disputes, mitigate tensions,promote peaceful resolutions, and ensurepredictable trade practices under the auspicesof the existing credible internationalorganizations, particularly the United Nations.


According to Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS)Cambodia, the bilateral ties between Cambodiaand Germany were rated to be
balanced, whichis generally perceived as positive. The samestudy also found that the ongoing cooperativedevelopment partnership between thecountries continued to be a solid foundationfor further enhancement. Thus far, the Germandevelopment agency and think tankorganizations in Cambodia have made manysignificant contributions to the country’sdevelopment. Germany has provided technicaland financial supports through developmentprojects, aligning with Cambodia’s 18Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and itsnational development strategies. Forinstance, Germany is among Cambodia’s keydevelopment partners for mine clearance andancient temple conservation. During the visit ofPresident Steinmeier in 2023, Germany pledgedrenewed support for Cambodia’s mineclearance efforts and Angkor conservation, inline with the Kingdom’s vision to become a“mine-free country by 2025”. Moreover, therole of the German think tanks has been deeplyrooted in Cambodia.


For example, KAS Cambodia, the Germanpolitical think tank, has been in operation in theKingdom since 1994 to promote and fosteropen and inclusive political dialogues,intellectual exchanges, as well as key priorityareas of Cambodia’s social, political, economicand cultural development.


Ways Forward for Cambodia


In Southeast Asia, Cambodia has recentlywitnessed a peaceful transfer of power, a rarityin its history spanning at least five centuries.Under the government of the new PrimeMinister Hun Manet, the eldest son of theformer Prime Minister Hun Sen, it is explicitthat Cambodia has continued its seven foreignpolicy direction and priorities. They are (1) protecting independence, sovereignty, andterritorial integrity; (2) maintaining neutralityand renouncing the use of violence; (3) preserving peace as a fundamental prerequisiteto political stability, social order, and economicdevelopment; (4) fostering peaceful andfriendly relations with all the countries basedon the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference; (5) promoting economicdiplomacy; (6) continuing to support andstrengthen multilateralism; (7) and supportingthe rule-based international order basedprimarily on the UN principles and purposes.


As the first Cambodian leader who earned adoctorate in economics and graduated fromthe elite American military academy, WestPoint, Prime Minister Hun Manet reiterated tofirmly protect the country’s independence,sovereignty and territorial integrity, andpromote peaceful relations with close anddistant neighbours. His foreign policy is clear,trying to avoid take sides with one major powerat the expanse of another, continuing toenhance bilateral relations with China, and intandem reinvigorating diplomatic relations withJapan, the United States, and the Europeancountries. This strategic alignment with all the powers regardless of their power distributionscan assist Cambodia in maximizing interestsand reducing risks.


There are many ways for Cambodia andGermany to enhance their strategiccooperation as the new government ofCambodia does not wish to risk itsindependence and sovereignty by beingoverdependent on China. As reiterated byPrime Minister Hun Manet in August 2023,Cambodia is committed to promoting the “rule-based order” based mainly on the principlesand purposes of the UN and ASEAN. Buildingon this shared foreign policy priority, bothcountries can elevate their diplomatic relationsto a new height by deepening their diplomaticengagement, economic cooperation, culturalexchange, and educational collaboration.


To enhance the diplomatic relations betweenCambodia and Germany, several measures canbe taken. First, both nations should prioritizehigh-level visits and exchanges of delegations.This may include not only government officialsat the ministerial level but also interactionsbetween the heads of state and governmentfrom both countries. Additionally, fosteringhigh-level political dialogues can further solidifythe diplomatic ties between Cambodia andGermany. This approach can provide both topleaders with more opportunities to meet face-to-face, openly and frankly exchange views onimportant issues concerning the interests ofthe two countries and build personalrelationships. Such high-level interactions willhelp to establish trust, strengthen mutualunderstanding, and foster bilateralcollaborations on a wide range of importantissues. The official visit of the GermanPresident Frank-Walter Steinmeier to theKingdom this year is exemplary as this visitfurther enhances the “mutual [political] trust,high appreciation and esteem” that consolidatediplomatic ties of the two nations.


Second, as stated in its foreign policy andeconomic diplomacy, Cambodia aims to promote and diversify its economicpartnerships with all countries. Germany isranked as Cambodia’s the sixth largest exportmarket in the EU and the eighth top trading partner. However, based on the data of theGeneral Department of Customs and Excise ofCambodia in 2023, the trade volume ofmerchandise between the two countriesdropped by almost 12.6% year-on-year and21% half-on-half. Therefore, to reinvigoratethe bilateral relations, both governments needto explore more opportunities to foster thebilateral trade and investment, encouragingtheir businesses to invest in each other’scountry. More good investment opportunitiescan be explored by holding regular high-leveleconomic consultations and dialogues,promoting business fairs as well as organizingbusiness forums to facilitate businesspartnerships and introduce networkingopportunities for investors or entrepreneursfrom both countries.


Third, from Cambodia’s point of view, Germanyremains one of the key development partnerswhich has made substantial contributions, bothtechnical and financial, to assist Cambodia inconserving the old temples and promoting thecountry’s culture in Germany and beyond. In asimilar vein, Germany’s cultural policy stressesthe German government’s efforts to bringGerman culture to the Kingdom through theGerman-Cambodian Cultural Association(KDKG) and the Meta House. Thisconvergence shows another strength of bothcountries' cultural understanding and people-to-people ties through more cultural exchangesincluding, but not limited to, art exhibitions,music festivals, and many other culturalperformances.

Photo Courtesy to Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia, October 1995
Display of Cambodia-Germany's flags on KAS Cambodia's gate in Phnom Penh City, Cambodia.

All these cultural exchanges can also lead moretourists from Germany and other Europeancountries to visit Cambodia, accelerating thecountry’s more robust tourism recovery.


Fourth, as part of its Pentagonal Strategy-PhaseI, Cambodia aims to promote a knowledge-based economy centering on human andintellectual capitals for a viable transformationinto a “high-income” country by 2050. Hence, itis a good opportunity for Cambodia andGermany to further enhance educationalcollaborations by providing more scholarshipsand sufficient stipends for Cambodianstudents, establishing student exchangeprograms, and institutional and researchcollaborations in various fields. Theseeducational and research collaborations canfurther promote mutual understanding, trustand cooperation between the governments, academic and research institutions, and peopleof the two countries. The collaborations canalso provide a long-term impact on theCambodian-German diplomatic relations.


Last, Cambodia and Germany should furtherstrengthen development cooperation, focusingon key priority areas as stipulated inCambodia’s Pentagonal Strategy, such ashuman capitals, water, infrastructure, energy,and digital technology. These areas perfectlyalign with the main aim of Germany’sdevelopment policy to promote “freedom andhuman security for all; a life without povertyand hunger, fear or environmentaldestruction. Cambodia under the newgovernment is ready to work closely withGerman development agencies, think tanks,and other non-governmental organizations(NGOs) to support high-quality and high-standard cooperation projects contributing toCambodia's socio-economic development.


Ways Forward for Germany


First, in the political context, the recentpeaceful power transition in Cambodia hasopened a new opportunity for Germany to takeon more cooperation initiatives with theirCambodian counterpart. Both nations canfocus more on areas of common interests suchas promotion of the rule-based internationalorder and active multilateralism. For example,Russia’s prolonged invasion of Ukraine has hadprofound effects on the European security,stability, and economy. Cambodia, even at a fardistance, has made its voice louder and clearerto condemn Russia’s aggressive and unilateralinvasion of Ukraine. Cambodia’s firm positionand consistent foreign policy principles arealigned with Germany’s foreign policyobjectives. Thus, mobilizing internationalcollaborations to stand against any belligerentor aggressive states is of importance forEurope. In this regard, Cambodia has proven tobe a good friend.


With Cambodia’s growing desire and proactiveparticipation in both regional and global affairs,Germany should increase its constructiveengagement with the Kingdom in themultilateral frameworks, particularly in thecontext of ASEAN, to address regional andglobal issues such as food security, globalclimate change, the great power rivalry in theIndo-Pacific region, and beyond. To achievethis, Germany should further pursue strongerand consistent commitment to engage with allcountries in the region among which Cambodiais, indeed, a good and reliable partner to startwith, given its openness and desired alignment.


Looking inward, Germany should continue toengage with key actors at all levels, rangingfrom the governments to civil societyorganizations and from business communitiesto academic institutions, to ensure its inclusiveengagement with Cambodia.


For instance, Germany can take the opportunityfrom the current trend to assess how it can beof support in any areas of the five priorities ofCambodia’s Pentagonal Strategy. Strongcooperation in this policy framework will leadto concrete outcomes. Germany should alsocontinue to constructively address, in goodfaith, issues of concern such as democracy,with mutual understanding and respect to theCambodian context. For example, the partialwithdrawal of EBA (Everything but Arms) and the related issues concerning theopposition groups in Cambodia have arguablybeen viewed as a double standard whencompared with cases of Cambodia’s neighbors.


It is also encouraging to increase morefrequent exchanges between Cambodian andGerman leaders, policymakers, lawmakers, andpoliticians as this will further promote mutualpolitical understanding and deepen the trust.This approach has also seen a steady progresswith the official visit of the then CambodianMinister of Foreign Affairs and InternationalCooperation Prak Sokhonn to Germany in 2022 and and the official visit of PresidentFrank-Walter Steinmeier to Cambodia this year.This effort should continue in order to advancemore fruitful dialogues which are of greatinterest to both nations. Increasing thefrequency of high-level exchanges will pave theway to deepen cooperation, encourage moreinvestment opportunities, resolve challengesfacing the two nations, and build deepermutual trust and understanding.


Regarding trade, Cambodia and Germanyreached USD 1.2 billion trade volume in 2022,in which Cambodia’s export and importaccounted for nearly USD 1.1 billion and USD163.3 million respectively.

Photo Courtesy to Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia, June 2022
Cambodian Delegation during their visit to Germany under “Dialogue in Germany Program” organized by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in 2022

There remains a lack of the German directinvestment in Cambodia due to variousreasons. For example, located betweenThailand and Vietnam – two economicallydeveloped countries in Southeast Asia –Cambodia has generally been seen as a lessattractive investment destination by theGerman investors, mainly due to the country’sinfrastructure disadvantage and complexbureaucracy among other underlying reasons.

Nonetheless, it is worth noticing that Cambodiahas been committed to graduating from the“least developed country” status in 2027 andmoving to obtain the “upper middle income”and eventually “high income” status by 2050. This trend, driven by the Kingdom’slong-term peace, economic potentials, politicalstability, sound economic policies, and enablingbusiness environment, will provide incentivesfor German businesses to invest in the country.


Photo Courtesy to German Embassy Cambodia, February 2023
fficial Meeting between German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Peace Palace, February 2023
In this connection, the former Prime MinisterHun Sen suggested the “One Plus Model” for consideration. Cambodia's annualeconomic growth rate, strong determination todiversify its economy by moving toward a "highvalue-added industry," and Germany'sfavorable reputation among Cambodianconsumers combine to create convincingprospects for German investors to bring in theirinvestment. To achieve that, Germany wants tosee Cambodia makes further significantimprovements in its investment law, legalsystem, tax policy, and infrastructuredevelopment. Another underlying issue thathas to be addressed is accessibility. Cambodiashould double its effort to widely disseminatethe information to the direct targets in order toget them informed and come to invest in theKingdom.
Photo Courtesy to Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia, October 1995
Audience by the former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk (middle) with the first country director of KAS Cambodia Dr. Peter Schier (left to the King) and election experts on the 29th of October 1995.


Rooted in the 19th century, the Cambodian-German bilateral relations fluctuated at theheight of the Cold War and significantlychanged in the aftermath of the Cold War andCambodia’s internal conflict. After resumptionof their official diplomatic ties in 1993, the twocountries have continued to promote andstrengthen bilateral cooperation in varioussectors ranging from public health to socialprotection, from energy to environmentalconservation, and from capacity building tosustainable economic growth. These bilateralrelations have been mainly shaped by the twonations’ convergence of the troubled past, theirsuccessful transformation from a war-tornstate into a fully independent, peaceful, andpolitically stable country, and their sharedforeign policy priorities of promoting robusteconomic development, supporting activemultilateralism, and maintaining the rule-basedliberal international order.

Reinvigorating the Cambodian-Germanbilateral relations is an ongoing process thatrequires substantial, substantive, and sustainedefforts from both countries. There are manyways to further strengthen these diplomaticties, such as deepening their diplomaticengagement through frequent and regularhigh-level official visits, dialogues, andconsultations between the leaders, enhancingeconomic cooperation, as well as promotingcultural exchanges and educationalcollaboration. It is now more important andmore pragmatic for the two countries tocontinue to build political trust as afundamental prerequisite to their cooperation.


About the authors


Mr. Lak Chansok is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator for the Master of International Affairs program at the Institute for International Studies andPublic Policy of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. He is also a Researcher at Democracy Promotion Center of Ritsumeikan Center for AsiaPacific Studies (RCAPS) of the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Japan and at Cambodia 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road ResearchCenter (CMSRRC) of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in Cambodia. He used to be a Research Fellow at Cambodian Institute forCooperation and Peace (CICP) (2012-2016); and a Research Consultant for Korea Global Development Consulting Center (KGDC) in 2013. Heobtained his bachelor’s degrees in International Studies (with honors) and Law from the RUPP and the University of Cambodia (UC)respectively in 2012. He was also awarded an Australian Awards Fellowship at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2015. He is a Ph.D.candidate and holds a master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies (International Relations) from APU. His research interests cover Cambodia’sforeign policy towards China and Japan, soft power, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Cambodia’s transitional justice.


Mr. Soth Chhayheng is a Program Manager at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia. His portfolio covers political and foreign affairs, publicpolicy and scholarship programs. He is in charge of several publications projects, dialogues, and training programs of the country's office.Chhayheng graduated from Thammasat University with a Bachelor of Political Science in Politics and International Relations (Minor inGovernance and Transnational Studies) with two scholarships. His research interest covers Cambodia's domestic politics and its foreignrelations in the regional and global context. He also follows closely on Cambodia-Thailand relations.