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Making Sense of Cambodia’s Reaction to AUKUS

Cambodia’s reaction to the trilateral nuclear-technology sharing deal between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States can best be described as lukewarm. It would be an oversimplification to say that AUKUS will have no adverse effects on Southeast Asia.

On 14 March, United States President Joe Biden, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Australian Prime Minister Antony Albanese provided an update on a trilateral plan to provide the Royal Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines. Since then, there has been growing attention paid to how ASEAN nations respond to the deal and whether Canberra’s diplomatic blitz to assuage regional concerns towards the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement has made positive progress.

Among ASEAN states, Indonesia and Malaysia have been the most outspoken, given that the management of their archipelagic waters will directly affect Australia’s AUKUS submarines over the next three decades.

As a small, mainland ASEAN member with modest maritime capabilities, Cambodia has expressed some reservations about AUKUS, but it is not outrightly hostile towards the agreement. In contrast, its response to AUKUS can be considered lukewarm at best. Compared to Indonesia and Malaysia, Cambodia’s public statement on AUKUS has been more restrained, expressing hope that AUKUS “will not fuel unhealthy rivalries.” Likewise, in the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey published by the ISEAS-Ishak Yusof Institute, 25.9 per cent of Cambodian respondents viewed AUKUS as a counterbalance to China’s growing military power, while 28.4 per cent said the pact would lead to a regional arms race. The mixed reactions indicate how the Cambodian strategic and foreign policy community has taken a cautious but not hostile approach to AUKUS.

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