Cambodia undertook early the initiative to get preferential access to major markets in the world. This includes many bilateral trade agreements as well as the membership in ASEAN respectively AFTA and WTO, the latter as just the second Least Developed Country (after Nepal). This increasingly favorable institutional setting had a strong impact on Cambodia’s trade integration and economic development. A Long-term analysis of Cambodia’s economic growth makes obvious that Cambodia’s dynamic economic development in the past decade can be attributed to a large extent to international trade.
Cambodia economic growth is depending on the fourth main engines is manufacturing (garment/footwear), construction, tourism and agricultural sector where about 80% of Cambodian earned their living so far. A strong dynamics in agricultural sector, however, is rather based on yield improvements than on access to new markets. Cambodia's currently main export destination includes the United States (currently dominant due to the garment sector), EU states under EBA scheme, Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and China (PRC) (leading country in tourism). Vietnam and Thailand are either not represented or vastly underrepresented in many official statistics due to extensive information trade but are clearly large importers of Cambodian goods.
To develop a more strategic view of Cambodia's trade sector development, in 2007 the RGC have launched Diagnostic Trade Integration Study (DTIS-2007) to identify an initial basket of 19 export potentials and examines them through a series of "filters". The 19 sectors identifies for export promotion are beer, cassava, corn, fishery, footwear, garment, livestock, rice including organic rice, rubber, silk including silk handicraft, soybeans, fruit and vegetables, wood products including sustainable construction materials, such as bamboo flooring, paneling etc, Light manufacturing assembly which might include bicycle and mopeds, light electrical/electronic (e.g. fans, TVs,) sewing machines etc, tourism including personal and business travel, entertainment, labor services including construction services, household help, and farming, transport and transport related business-processes/web based services, which might include computer services, architecture, engineering bookkeeping, etc.
Cambodia’s agricultural products that are intensively traded with in the region countries, while Cambodia’s industrial exports (garment and footwear exports) are mostly delivered to the main markets US, EU, Canada, Japan and others. Garment and textile has opened to Cambodia a new age of international trade integration. Since the mid-1990s when garment and textile exports started in Cambodia from virtually zero (until the mid-1990s only a small-scale production for domestic market existed) this sector has almost steadily grown in importance. Despite frequent warnings that Cambodia’s garment industry success will collapse once the MFA expires (early 2005) due to the lack of domestic input suppliers, it turned out that the garment industry is much more sustainable than expected. This enables Cambodia to export despite higher production costs (compared to major competitors such as China, Bangladesh or Vietnam) to buyers who are concerned of labor standards are agree to order at least some of their supply from labor-friendly production sources. A decline in Cambodia’s garment export occurred only with the outbreak of the world financial crisis when the demand declined especially in the US. However, even without this decline in world demand for Cambodian garment which is expected to be rather a temporary problem the government is well aware that the export structure needs to be set on a broader basis in order to continue to move on the path of export-fuelled economic growth. A good signal, moreover, the Cambodian garments products export began recently to stabilize.
Similar to garment also the footwear industry had been established mostly through foreign investors (especially from Taiwan) who built in the mid-1990s factories in order to benefit from favorable market access provided by key overseas markets to Cambodia. Main regional market of Cambodian footwear was in 2008 the European Union where tariff-free market access is granted due to Cambodia’s status as a Least Developed Country (LDC). Germany and the UK account for about 44% of Cambodian footwear exports. The largest individual country market, however, is Japan (33%) where Cambodia enjoys a very moderate tariff (2.7%). Originally, Japan had a much higher share in Cambodia’s footwear exports but lost importance due to the increase of Cambodian exports to the EU market.
Cambodia has a long history of rubber cultivation that began in French colonial times. With increasing international market orientation rubber became now again an important crop in Cambodia. It can be clearly stated that rubber is a particularly dynamic sector in Cambodia that attracts an increasing number of domestic farmers as well as foreign investors who use land-concession to build large-scale rubber plantations. However, due to informal trade the real number is substantially higher and increasing as many farmers change from their former crops to rubber due to a favorable rubber price development in recent years.