Cambodia Wants China as Its Neighborhood Bully

Op-Ed: Foreign Policy

Cambodia Wants China as Its Neighborhood Bully

Cambodia Wants China as Its Neighborhood Bully

In the closing months of 2016, all of Southeast Asia seemed to be pivoting toward China. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was hailed as a “visionary leader” by fellow Malaysian politicians for “tilting to China.” Thailand agreed to build an arms-maintenance and production center for China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the president of the Philippines declared in a speech delivered in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People: “In this venue I announce my separation from the United States.”

Americans have been left to ask: What did we do wrong? What has caused the leaders of Southeast Asia to turn away from Washington and toward Beijing? It is tempting to look for the answer to these questions in the policies of the Obama or Xi administrations, or blame it on shifting fortunes in the balance of power. But focusing on the spectacle of Sino-American rivalry masks the dozens of smaller dramas and power plays that usually escape the attention of Western observers. Often it is these smaller conflicts of interest that drive lesser powers into the arms of the great ones.

There is no better example of this than Cambodia, one of the first countries in the region to openly align itself with China. Cambodia’s position became clear in 2012, when it prevented ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué that mentioned the South China Sea. Long-standing Cambodian dictator Hun Sen has reaped many rewards for this decision: In October, China granted Cambodia $237 million in direct aid, $90 million in canceled debt, and an additional $15 million in military support. Yet there is more behind Cambodian support for China than the size of Beijing’s pocketbook. In the minds of many Cambodians, the most difficult geopolitical challenge facing their country is not balancing the demands of the United States and China, but managing its relationship with Vietnam, an undertaking that cannot be successful without Chinese cooperation.

Ethnic disharmony is not hard to spot in Southeast Asia, but few of its prejudices — outside of the Myanmese hatred toward the Rohingya, at least — can match the distrust and disgust the average Khmer feels toward the Vietnamese. Recall how conservative Americans talked about the Soviet Union at the height of communist power, add the way their counterparts in modern Europe discuss Arab immigration now, and then throw in a dash of the humiliation that marked Germany in interwar years, and then you might come close to getting a fair idea of how wild and vitriolic a force anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is in Cambodian politics.

Cambodians have not forgotten the centuries of warfare that led Vietnamese armies to pillage the Khmer heartland and strip away more than half of its territory. Cambodian nationalists still pine for Khmer krom (“Lower Khmer”), a term used to describe both the ethnic Khmer living outside Cambodia and the lands they inhabit.

Without the intervention of the French in the 1860s, which transformed Cambodia into a French protectorate and southern Vietnam into a French colony, Cambodia would have been totally swallowed by the Vietnamese maw. French imperialism brought peace, but not harmony: Relations between the two groups only worsened under colonial control, as the French gave the Vietnamese a privileged status, and imperial policy supported Vietnamese migration to the Cambodian heartland. The subsequent governments that came to power in post-colonial times — the Sisowath, Lon Nol, and Khmer Rouge regimes — relied on anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to legitimize their rule to the Cambodian people.

Historically informed Cambodians are quick to point out that the Khmer Rouge was a creation of the Viet Cong; the more conspiratorial of their countrymen insist that the Khmer Rouge’s massacres were directed by them as well. Conspiratorial or not, Cambodians remember that 150,000 Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia in 1978 and then occupied their country as foreign conquerors for the next 10 years. Though that decade-long war was not entirely the fault of the Vietnamese (China, Thailand, and the United States would support their own armed proxies), the violence of Vietnam’s counterinsurgency operations slowly eroded what goodwill they had earned by removing the Khmer Rouge from power.

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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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