Defensive Cambodia Hastens Pivot to China

Amid a torrent of criticism directed at Cambodia’s government recently—particularly from Western democracies outraged by the detention of activists, politicization of the military and repression of peaceful protests—one country has stood firmly in its corner.

—News Analysis—

Nestling ever closer to China, with its promises of endless largesse and indifference toward human rights, Prime Minister Hun Sen seems to be growing apart from the U.N. and Western world, which helped draw up the blueprint for what has been a faltering democratic transition in Cambodia over the past two decades.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting in Beijing in November 2014. (Reuters)
Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting in Beijing in November 2014. (Reuters)

In Geneva this week, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, delivered a sharp critique of the deteriorating situation in Cambodia. She received backing from the E.U., U.S., Australia and several other Western countries.

But her attempts to cast Cambodia as a Western-style democracy struggling to uphold its international commitments were countered by China, which said the world must support Cambodia’s unique culture and “choice of a suitable human rights development model and path.”

Speaking at a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Chinese representative Wang Ying called on the international community to assess Cambodia only by “taking into full account its specific national conditions.”

Those words followed Ms. Smith’s detailed and biting report on worsening human rights abuses, exemplified by the arrests of opposition figures, rising threats to activists and rights organizations, a climate of fear and intimidation created by a military often entering the political arena and the July assassination of political analyst Kem Ley.

The debate at the U.N. illustrated the contrast between countries defending universal human rights, led by the U.S. and E.U., and those calling for leeway for developing countries, most notably China.

Both the E.U. and U.S. have threatened aid cuts this year unless the Cambodian government backs off from its crackdown on the opposition, though neither donor has indicated that it is truly prepared to implement such extreme diplomatic measures.

Officials from Beijing, meanwhile, have offered a warm embrace to their counterparts in Phnom Penh.

China’s new ambassador to Cambodia, Xiong Bo, told Mr. Hun Sen during a meeting on Thursday that he hoped to make cooperation between the two countries even “stronger and deeper,” according to a post to the premier’s Facebook page.

“The mission of his excellency Xiong Bo in Cambodia is to push the friendship, communication, cooperation and comprehensive partner strategy,” the post said.

Already this year, China has pledged nearly $600 million in aid to Cambodia. Facing plummeting rice prices this month, Cambodia quickly turned to China and asked for an emergency $300 million funding package to stabilize the sector. In return for the support, many say, Cambodia has acted as a diplomatic wedge preventing Asean members from uniting against Beijing over disputes in the South China Sea.

Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University and author of “Behind the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia,” said Cambodia’s shift into China’s sphere of influence would only increase.

“China’s ‘no strings’ aid and investment will continue to draw Cambodia closer and at an accelerated rate. The West simply cannot match what is on offer,” Mr. Morgenbesser said in an email.

“Criticism of the government’s human rights violations has become a necessary, but actually quite fruitless, task,” he said. “An alternative strategy is required.”

The partnership between Cambodia and China—including sticking up for one another in international forums—was a “categorical example of a quid pro quo between two authoritarian regimes,” Mr. Morgenbesser said.

“Typically, this is achieved through the deployment of what is termed a ‘government-operated non-government organisation’ that provides a facade of independence” during international forums,” Mr. Morgenbesser said in an email.

“In the case of Cambodia and China, however, they simply ignore the need for such window dressing and display their affinity for each other openly.”

Political analyst Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum policy think tank, said China’s patronage freed Cambodia from having to cave to international criticism.

“It’s no longer as responsive to Western pressure as in the past,” Mr. Virak said, adding that the shift began during Cambodia’s border dispute with Thailand in 2008, when “the only country to come to Cambodia’s rescue was China, with money and weapons.”

The deepening ties will make it harder for Western countries to push Cambodia down the democratic path set out in the Paris Peace Agreements nearly 25 years ago. It will also make it less likely that opposition leader Sam Rainsy is able to leverage international support in his latest attempts to secure a royal pardon for charges widely seen as being politically motivated.

But foreign powers are not the only force in play, Mr. Virak noted.

“I don’t think they would respond to Western governments,” he said of the ruling party. “But at the same time, they will have to be very careful with the will of the people. They will still have to play along.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia was not favoring one country over another as it navigated the push and pull of international forums.

“We don’t depend on anyone, but we try to be partners with everyone,” Mr. Siphan said. “Even when the U.S. criticizes us, we still have big open arms and smile at them.”

Cambodia’s increasing bonhomie with China was all about economic growth, he said.

“With economic growth, human rights pick up from there. People have employment so everyone can enjoy and respect each other,” Mr. Siphan said.

Anyone criticizing Cambodia’s ties with China—frequently cited for human rights abuses itself—should pick a fight with Beijing, he added.

“If you don’t like China, go to war with them,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Phan Soumy)

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