With official election results still to be announced, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang has already congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen—a reliable ally of Beijing—on his victory at the polls.
The Communist Party of China (CPC)—which presides over a one-party state without general elections—has also said the vote was “competitive, free, fair and transparent.”
But following a huge reduction in popular support for Mr. Hun Sen in last month’s election, there are signs China may not be so ready to back Mr. Hun Sen’s government should his government fall out of favor.
An opinion article published by China’s state-owned English-language newspaper the Global Times on Wednesday declared that “Beijing must realize vote’s power in SE Asia.”
The article—accompanied by a cartoon depicting a ballot box with the wings of a dove—was written by Ding Gang, a senior editor with the CPC’s newspaper, The People’s Daily.
Veering away from Chinese state media’s usual line—which tends to ignore Cambodia’s opposition—Mr. Ding wrote that on a recent trip to Cambodia before the election, he could sense that grassroots support for the CPP was beginning to waver.
“I came across many ordinary people from all walks of life: young people, taxi drivers, store owners and hotel receptionists. They worked at different jobs, but without exception, they were all complaining about one thing: government corruption,” he wrote.
He said opposition populism posed a threat to the ruling CPP “which is challenged by how to legitimately share the cake with different classes.”
“Southeast Asia is not virgin territory for democracy, but few countries with this system have successfully established a truly fair distribution mechanism. Social turmoil is lying in wait,” Mr. Ding wrote.
Mr. Ding appeared to be highlighting a concern among Beijing foreign policy circles that despite China’s own lack of democratic elections, continuity in government cannot be assumed in Southeast Asia.
“Chinese usually take it for granted that Cambodia, a small country nearby, has to depend on China’s development. As a result, the Chinese are usually not interested in the political transformations in surrounding countries,” Mr. Ding said.
“Considering the power of the vote in its neighbors, China has to face great challenges in its future ties with neighboring countries if it wants to maintain a good, sustainable image in the long term,” he said.
The opposition CNRP has made it clear that in government it would continue to embrace China, but the CPP has developed close links with the CPC.
The Global Times piece follows an editorial in Japan’s influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper on Monday, calling for Mr. Hun Sen to “embark on reform to eliminate corruption in Cambodia,” suggesting another major Asian patron’s displeasure with the CPP.
The Asahi Shimbun highlighted the huge support Japan has given Cambodia since the early 1990s, and called on its leaders to pressure reform from Mr. Hun Sen.
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to base his diplomacy in Asia on such values as freedom, democracy and respect for human rights,” the editorial said.
Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said China has historically proved very flexible to creating relationships with whoever is ruling in Cambodia.
“History speaks for itself. China once supported and backed communist insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia, and then abandoned them in the 1970s once state-to-state relations were established with a One China policy clause,” he said.
Mr. Thayer noted that China pivoted from supporting the Khmer Rouge after 1991 to supporting Mr. Hun Sen after 1993 and said Chinese diplomats would be following developments closely after Burma’s recent opening to Europe and the U.S.
“China has too much invested in Cambodia economically and politically to fall on its sword if Hun Sen exits power,” he said. “China will be pragmatic and switch sides. It will use economic inducements to convince any potential new government that they must get along with China.”
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