Can the West Flip Cambodia?
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab meets Cambodia Environment Minister Say Sam Al in Phnom Penh, June 2021 (Picture Credit: Number 10)
At Nikkei’s online Future of Asia Conference last May, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen defended his close relationship with China in a rather strange way. “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask?” he said. This pretty much means: if you support him, he is for sale to the highest bidder. And that may not be Beijing.
Since 1997, Hun Sen has courted China’s support, and for the last 10 years has actually behaved like a vassal of Beijing. US intelligence suspects Cambodia has signed a secret deal with China allowing it to use a naval base near a deep-water port at the coastal city of Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia, from which it could assert itself over the strategically-important Straits of Malacca. Hun Sen’s servility to China has only accelerated since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, as his government signed over 30 bilateral agreements with China in a few years. When Cambodia last chaired the ASEAN in 2012, he was perceived as Beijing’s voice in the bloc, blocking a joint communique on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, evidently at China’s behest.
But we should remember something important: Hun Sen is a turncoat. Once a member of the China-backed Khmer Rouge, he later turned against it and joined the rebel militias supported by Vietnam. At the time Vietnam was backed by the USSR and, as the Sino-Soviet split was still fresh, was not a friend of Beijing. After Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge, it installed him as deputy prime minister and foreign minister of the country at the age of 26, and he later became prime minister at the age of 33. As late as 1988, Hun Sen called China “the root of everything that is evil” in Cambodia. After the general election in 1993, Hun Sen was forced to share the prime minister-ship with his rival Norodom Ranariddh, who he deposed in a coup in 1997. This coup made Hun Sen the sole ruler of the country, but made Cambodia an international pariah. With few other options, Hun Sen turned to China for patronage, and has been subservient to it ever since.
We should remember something important: Hun Sen is a turncoat.
Lately, though, Hun Sen seems to be growing discomfited with his country’s overreliance on China and appears to be trying to hedge his bets. In February, Cambodia cancelled an annual military exercise with China, a decision the Cambodian opposition claims was made to please the US. When US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Cambodia last month, a state newspaper published an article on how it was “time for the US and Cambodia, in China’s shadow, to reset ties.”
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Phnom Penh, June 2021 (Picture Credit: U.S. Department of State)
These developments might indicate a potential opening for the US and its allies to try to lure Cambodia away from China’s orbit so that it will no longer be a potential base for the People’s Liberation Army or an impediment to ASEAN efforts to stand up to Beijing, especially since it will assume the bloc’s rotating chair next year.
These developments might indicate a potential opening for the US and its allies to try to lure Cambodia away from China’s orbit.
The United States isn’t the only country trying to take advantage of this opportunity. The UK just sent Dominic Raab to Cambodia – the first time in 30 years that a British foreign secretary has visited the country. France has also intensified its presence in Cambodia: the French Development Agency, a public financial institution that the French government uses to further its foreign policy aims, increased the amount of aid it gives to the country from $90 million to over $120 million a year.
Meanwhile, China’s position in Cambodia is getting less secure. Cambodia’s Constitution forbids foreign military bases in the country, which will make any Chinese military presence there awkward, to say the least – though, as a dictator, Hun Sen could probably get away with violating the Constitution. More importantly, China is growing increasingly unpopular amongst the Cambodian people. Even though over $4 billion worth of Chinese investment has poured into Sihanoukville, this has stirred more resentment amongst the local populace than gratitude. Some estimate that 20% of the city’s population now consists of Chinese expats, who don’t integrate very well with the locals, and new casinos have sprouted all over the city (which locals aren’t allowed to enter as Cambodian law forbids them from gambling). The cost of living has skyrocketed, pricing many locals out of the city. Protests against the Chinese military presence in the country have sprung up. China’s massive investments into Cambodia seems to be backfiring, turning locals against it and the man they supported.
Of course, there is one major impediment to the West’s deepening relations with Cambodia: its dismal record on democracy and human rights, which has gotten worse and worse in recent years. Cambodia is currently under EU sanctions for violating its people’s human rights and persecuting members of the political opposition. The sanctions targeted its textiles industry, which represents a major part of its exports.
Engaging with a regime as odious as Hun Sen’s might be distasteful (though it’s not like its human rights record would improve in the absence of Western engagement). If the West decides to hold its nose and reach out to Hun Sen, it might be able to flip Cambodia, and it might come to be known as the country that was once almost a Chinese ally.