Cambodia China Relations
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Op-Ed: The Diplomat
A lot has changed in 40 years — but not everything.
Like Pol Pot before him, Hun Sen has now pinned his political longevity on China, which again looks out at a visage of hostile powers across Asia as it seeks to rise to the status of the regional hegemon, and celebrates having a strong ally in Phnom Penh.
The Soviet threat is gone, but Hun Sen’s cantankerous political attacks on all things American in Cambodia, which has tied him to the Chinese for support, might be viewed in much the same way as Pol Pot’s attacks on Vietnam: it’s me, or a pawn of China’s great power rival du jour.
Though Hun Sen never specified the precise hue of the “color revolution” brewing against him by Cambodia’ popular opposition party as he dismantled the country’s 25-year-old UN-built democracy late last year, his targets both in the opposition and in fragile civil society had a distinct American accent.
The 24-year-old U.S.-owned English-language newspaper-of-record, The Cambodia Daily, was forced to close — but not the Australian-owned Phnom Penh Post. Gone too were radio programs from the U.S.-run Voice of America and Radio Free Asia — along with two of their reporters, who were imprisoned for “espionage” — but not those of Radio France International.
Gone, even, was U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute — even as Germany’s Konrad Adanaeur Institute, which had been actively working with the opposition to develop policies, was left untouched. The message to China would have been clear.
Hun Sen is only the latest in a long line of Cambodian leaders to bank his leadership’s long-term survival and his legacy on the rise of China as the regional power.
Pol Pot, too, was not the first.
King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia’s 1953 independence, also moved sharply toward China’s influence late in his rule. He went as far as to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S. in 1965, believing that the future in Asia was with China.
Pol Pot and King Sihanouk were notably both thwarted by competing interests from within their regimes — a pro-U.S. faction represented by the coup leader Lon Nol for Sihanouk in March 1970, and a pro-Vietnamese faction, with Hun Sen among the leaders, in the case of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.
Hun Sen may well yet prove to have bested both for timing in the China gambit. Yet as a self-proclaimed life-long student of history and geopolitics, he would be forgiven for looking around his party with apprehension.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—Cambodia is strengthening its military ties with China, and analysts say it is likely to continue doing so for the forseeable future.
Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh made a five-day trip to China last week, meeting with high-ranking military officials and receiving pledges of assistance from the Chinese military.
In a recent interview, he told the VOA Khmer service that the visit was successful in bringing military cooperation between the countries even closer. That relationship is closer than Cambodia’s military ties with the U.S., he said.
Analysts say Phnom Penh is likely to look more and more to Beijing for support because of growing tensions with its old patron, Vietnam, over border issues.
Cambodia and China have traditionally enjoyed close relations, and they became noticeably closer after 2012 when Cambodia, as host of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, sided with China over the contentious South China Sea issue.
The following year, Beijing provided Phnom Penh with a $195 million loan, which bought 12 Chinese Z-9 military helicopters. In May of this year, China pledged military trucks, spare parts, equipment and unspecified chemicals.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has often touted the relationship. During the inauguration of a Chinese-funded road in Kampong Som province last month, he told a group of farmers that Cambodian-Chinese relations were at an all-time high, and that the two were moving toward a “comprehensive” partnership. China’s development fund for Cambodia for 2015 amounted to $140 million, up from $100 million the year before, he said.
Tea Banh defended the bilateral relationship, saying Chinese aid came with no strings attached and that China had never interfered in Cambodian affairs. He declined to disclose how much aid Cambodia would receive from his latest trip.
Benefits for China
Yet analysts warn that China is getting more out of the deal than Cambodia. Chheang Vannarith, a visiting professor at the University of Leeds in England, said China needs Cambodia as a partner in Southeast Asia, where competition is rising.