Why Hun Sen needs China now more than ever

Why Hun Sen needs China now more than ever

Pending US and EU sanctions threaten to sink Cambodia’s economy. Will China come to the rescue?

Op-Ed: Asia Time


In multiple and mounting ways, from aid to trade to diplomatic protection, China keeps its geopolitical ally Cambodia afloat. That patron-client relationship was on full display late last month when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made a hat-in-hand four-day state visit to Beijing.

The leader came away with what he sought: More money, more promises and more comradely assurances. Beijing reportedly pledged to provide Cambodia with US$588 million in aid over the next three years, to import 400,000 tons of rice, increase bilateral trade from $5.7 billion last year to $10 billion in 2023, and broadly more investment.

Courtesy: US Embassy Phnom Penh, Facebook page

“At present, China-Cambodia relations are facing new development opportunities,” China state-media outlet Xinhua quoted President Xi Jinping as saying after his meeting with Hun Sen last week. Hun Sen, for his part, wrote in a post-visit Facebook post that Xi “praised [China’s] special cooperation with Cambodia and vowed to make the relationship even stronger” and that its future development assistance for that country will be “twice more solid.”

China’s patronage is arguably more important now than ever, as the United States (US) moves to sanction Hun Sen’s regime and the European Union (EU) looks to withdraw the country from its duty-free Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme. Both are punitive responses to Cambodia’s recent democratic retreat, exemplified by the dissolution of country’s main opposition party in November 2017, a move that drove many of its members into exile.

Video clip depicts reality of China who can easily withdraw from Cambodia when its interests is not fruitful anymore. As most raw materials imported by China to Cambodia, the closure of garment factories in this country by the withdrawal of EU EBA and US GST, will probe China’s huge interests in its economy which has always drawn by China’s geopolitical instinct.

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) thus won all the seats in the National Assembly at last July’s general election, a result many Western observers and governments saw as rigged and illegitimate. The CPP has claimed that any Western criticism of its rule is an assault on the country’s sovereignty and insult to its independence, claims the long-ruling party has played up to nationalistic effect.

China, it seems, is now backing that anti-Western narrative. Its new ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentian, recently asserted that Western nations want to “attack the cooperation between Cambodia and China.” Geopolitical shifts partly explain why Beijing has appeared to indulge the Cambodian government’s worst anti-democratic instincts and move to a de facto one-party state after years of Western-favored multi-party democracy.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at a ballot box after he casted his ballot at a polling station in Kandal province on June 4, 2017. The leader has presided over a harsh crackdown on dissent in recent weeks. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at a ballot box after he casted his ballot at a polling station in Kandal province on June 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Elections last year in Pakistan, Maldives and Malaysia all saw skeptics of China’s $1 trillion infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) rise to democratic power. Other regional countries have also started to air misgivings or stalled on BRI-related projects. While some reports of BRI downsides and debt traps have been exaggerated, there is a rising regional backlash against Chinese investments that are perceived to erode nations’ sovereignty and finances.

Xi stressed at a high-level symposium to mark the BRI’s fifth anniversary held in Beijing last August that its projects aim to “improve the global governance system” and build a world “community of shared destiny.” It’s a message China aims in particular for neighboring Southeast Asia, where big BRI plans for connecting infrastructure to promote and facilitate more regional trade are on the drawing board.

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Interview: Senior Pentagon Official Visits Cambodia, Talks Phnom Penh Ties, Indo-Pacific Strategy

Interview: Senior Pentagon Official Visits Cambodia, Talks Phnom Penh Ties, Indo-Pacific Strategy

19 January 2019

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joseph H Felter paid a two-day visit in Cambodia, from January 15-16, 2019 to strengthen military ties between United States and Cambodia. (Ky Mengly/VOA Khmer)
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joseph H Felter paid a two-day visit in Cambodia, from January 15-16, 2019 to strengthen military ties between United States and Cambodia. (Ky Mengly/VOA Khmer)

“Bilateral defense ties have undergone drastic setbacks over the past few years amid Cambodia’s growing closer security ties with China and political tensions surrounding Cambodia’s general elections last year.”PHNOM PENH — 

Listen the entire interviewing translated in Khmer

[Editor’s Note: U.S. Department of Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H. Felter visited Cambodia this week to discuss the restoration of military cooperation with Cambodia. Bilateral defense ties have undergone drastic setbacks over the past few years amid Cambodia’s growing closer security ties with China and political tensions surrounding Cambodia’s general elections last year. The senior Pentagon official sat down in Phnom Penh on Wednesday with VOA Khmer to discuss defense ties with Cambodia and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at dealing with China’s growing influence in the region.]

VOA: Can you tell us about this trip of yours to Cambodia?

Felter: That was special because this is my first trip to Cambodia in this capacity as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia. It was also the first time we had a senior-level defense talk in quite some time in Cambodia – defense dialogue which took place on Tuesday hosted by Gen. Neang Phat [Ministry of Defense secretary of state].

VOA: Who did you meet on the Cambodian side and what issues did you discuss?

Felter: On Tuesday I met with Gen. Neang Phat. He was hosting with his senior members from his staff from the Ministry of Defense and the Cambodian military. Just today, we visited Ream Naval Base and met with Vice Admiral Ouk Seiha, commander of the base, and his staff.

VOA: Can you tell us what issues you raised with Cambodian officials?

Felter: Gen. Neang Phat is the secretary of state of the Ministry of National Defense. As part of the Defense Policy Dialogue, we discussed a range of issues like regional and international security, multilateral and bilateral cooperation. What I thought to be the most important part of our discussion on Tuesday with the Defense Policy Dialogue was mapping out a way forward to improve and enhance military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Cambodia to identify a way we can improve our defense ties and military cooperation.

VOA: We have seen many joint activities have been canceled due to the political situation in Cambodia. Have you brought this into discussions with Cambodian officials to find ways to restart them?

Felter: Yes, we have restarted on some levels. Encouragingly, Cambodia agreed to restart our POW/MIA [Prisoner of War/Missing in Action] cooperation and we find this very encouraging. Later this month we will have a joint on-field activity where we actually go out and do recovery operations of two missing pilots that we are searching for. So we find this very encouraging. Following this, we will be able to enhance our existing state partnership program. This is the partnership program with the Eisenhower National Guard that we will be sending many subject experts here to help the Cambodian military develop their peace-keeping skills. We know that Cambodia will participate in peace-keeping operations and missions around the world so we look forward to that. And there is a way forward beyond that. We will identify a number of activities that we can do to build on this military-to-military cooperation and enhance defense relationship. But to go down that path, we were clear in our discussion on Tuesday with Gen. Neang Phat that a number of things will have to happen on the Cambodian side that has to take initiative in areas of promoting national reconciliation, opening space for civil society and media. Some specific areas down that path include improving bilateral and multilateral exercises, restarting joint combined exchange training which we did in the past, the naval exercise CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training). Angkor Sentinel is another example.

VOA: Your call for release the of Kem Sokha, the opposition leader, is met with a negative response from Cambodian officials. What do you think about that?

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Machiavelli’s Lessons Cambodia approaches China, leaving the United States in the dust. Can it retain its freedom?

Comment: The author has well balanced his argument on choice Cambodia made with China in its foreign policy that can tip the navy of this nation if the policy shifted too much towards China without aligning with USA, ASEAN member states, and other super countries. The author academically termed “alignment” not “alliance” for Cambodia to strengthening tie with China. What author has missed out the important parts is the two pragmatic factors: the Cambodia constitution and lesson learnt during the Khmer Rouge regime.

First, Cambodia constitution firmly claims that Cambodia is a neutral nation state and non-alignment. Cambodia is friendly to all outside nation states. No other state(s) can use Cambodia as their military base or influencing site for their advantage etc.

Second, China supported the Khmer Rouge, and Cambodian people have been bitterly suffered. USA also supported the Khmer Rouge. But aids from USA to the Khmer Rouge were used by someone there, we don’t know who? China’s aids to Khmer Rouge were also used by someone there, we don’t know who? But the usage of those aids within Khmer Rouge cadres tended to destroy their cadres, not to save their company at all, not mention about using those aids to support the nation. Are these unknown users are supper secrete? May be not at all. Before Khmer Rouge turned 90 degree to China, KR was under supervision of Vietnam (North Vietnam or Vietminh, critically). This is the truth of history, undeniably.

Now, Hun Sen (head) has aligned or turned 90 degrees to China, should the old trauma haunt Cambodia again? No one know. But Khmer people nationwide have been vigilant on their political vision that “Head goes to China while Body and Feet are strong with Vietnam“.

Machiavelli’s Lessons Cambodia approaches China, leaving the United States in the dust. Can it retain its freedom?

Op-Ed: The Diplomat

By Cheunboran Chanborey
August 11, 2015

Image Credit: Ari V/ Shutterstock.com
Image Credit: Ari V/ Shutterstock.com

As part of the United States’ ‘pivot’ to Asia, the Obama Administration has taken further steps to broaden engagement with Cambodia, primarily in response to China’s rapidly growing influence in the country and in the broader Lower Mekong region.

Diplomatically, U.S. high-level officials have started visiting Cambodia more frequently. For instance, in 2012, a series of U.S. leaders engaged with Cambodia’s leadership, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk—all this while Cambodia was hosting the ASEAN-U.S. Leaders’ Meeting and other ASEAN-related meetings. Two major visits occurred earlier this year in Phnom Penh—the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in March 2015, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Asia Pacific Daniel Russel in January. U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama also visited Cambodia in March 2015.

Militarily, the U.S. government has maintained a small but sustained level of engagement with the Cambodian military, which includes naval port visits, joint exercises, and military assistance. From 2007 to 2012, eight U.S. naval ships made port calls in Cambodia and engaged in joint military exercises with the Cambodian armed forces. Cambodia and the U.S. also jointly conducted the bilateral Angkor Sentinel peacekeeping exercises four years in the row, beginning in 2010. As of 2014, the U.S. allocated $0.45 million to an “International Military Education and Training” program to help Cambodian military officers with their English-language skills, leadership training, military professionalism, human rights awareness, and counterterrorism practices.

Economically, the U.S. is the largest foreign market for Cambodian goods, accounting for about half of the country’s garment exports—an industry that employs approximately 400,000 workers in the kingdom. Cambodia is also the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar. In 2014, the U.S. provided assistance worth $70.9 million, mostly to non-governmental organizations and humanitarian programs in Cambodia.

At the sub-regional level, the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI)—launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009—is a regional foreign assistance effort, amounting to $425 million for 2009-2011 period. It aims to help lower Mekong countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, in the areas of agriculture and food security, connectivity, education, energy security, the environment and water management, and health. In 2014, the State Department provided an additional $14.3 million for the LMI.

Although the relationship has recently been strengthened, there are a number of impediments for Cambodia and the United States in developing deeper bilateral ties.

Trust Deficit Between Phnom Penh and Washington

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Cambodia’s Strategic China Alignment

Cambodia’s Strategic China Alignment

A number of factors are driving Cambodia’s strategic convergence with China.
By Cheunboran Chanborey
July 08, 2015

The Diplomat
The Diplomat

According to conventional wisdom, the international system leaves small states less room for maneuver. Cambodia is no exception. Since the kingdom won its independence from France in 1953, it had been preoccupied with protecting that independence, as well as its sovereignty and territorial integrity. During the Cold War, Cambodian foreign policymakers  tried various approaches, from neutrality to alliances with major power(s) and, worst of all, isolationism. Yet Cambodia remained a victim of power politics, and ended up with a civil war and some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Early in the 21st century, China has emerged as a regional and global power. China’s power and influence can be felt in all corners of the globe, most evidently in continental Southeast Asia. In this context, the Cambodia-China bilateral relationship has experienced a remarkable transformation over the last decade or so. Although rooted in mistrust due to the involvement of China in Cambodia’s civil war and social strife, especially Beijing’s support for the Khmer Rouge regime, bilateral ties have noticeably consolidated and improved since 1997.
In December 2010, the two countries upgraded their bilateral ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation.’ Cambodia continues to attach great economic and strategic importance to China’s rise.
Economically, China plays an increasingly important role in the socio-economic development of Cambodia as its primary trading partner, largest source of foreign direct investment, and top provider of development assistance and soft loans. Noticeably, two-way trade between Cambodia and China grew from $2.34 billion in 2012 to around $3.3 billion in 2013. Recently, the two countries agreed to boost their bilateral trade to reach the target of $5 billion by 2017. Similarly, Chinese investment in Cambodia in 2013 rose 65 percent, to $435.82 million compared to $263.59 million in 2012. More importantly, Chinese loans and grants to Cambodia reached $2.7 billion in 2012, making it one of the latter’s largest donors. Moreover, Cambodia will reap enormous benefits from new Chinese initiatives such as the Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Militarily, China is the biggest source of assistance to Cambodia’s armed forces in various forms. In May 2012, Cambodia and China signed a military cooperation agreement in which China agreed to provide $17 million to Cambodia to build military hospitals and military training schools for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and promised to continue training military personnel in Cambodia. The latter is, according to Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh, a “great contribution to improving the Cambodian army’s capacity in national defense.” It is worth noting that Chinese military assistance increased remarkably at a time when Cambodia badly needed to build up its defense forces due to the increasingly tense border dispute with Thailand from 2008 to 2011.
Victim of Location
In geopolitical and strategic terms, Cambodia had been a victim of its location as a country sandwiched between two powerful and historically antagonistic neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Cambodia vividly suggests that over the six hundred years following the fall of the Khmer Empire, Thailand and later Vietnam regularly defeated Khmer armies and annexed Khmer territories. The two countries had always attempted to impose their suzerainty over Cambodia. Cambodia’s acceptance of the French protectorate in 1863 was an escape from suzerainty.
The eruption of a border conflict with Thailand from 2008 to 2011 reminded Cambodian leaders that its stronger neighbors remain a security threat to the kingdom’s territorial integrity. It also prompted Cambodian leaders to rethink the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. In fact, since becoming a member of ASEAN in 1999, the regional grouping has always been the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Cambodian policymakers were convinced that ASEAN would be a crucial regional platform through which their country could safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as promote its strategic and economic interests. However, it seems that Cambodia’s confidence in ASEAN has faded due to the grouping’s ineffective response to the Cambodia-Thailand border dispute.

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