A heightened global profile for the opposition CNRP since last year’s disputed election has brought with it a new challenge: balancing multiple foreign relations.
The party’s campaign to delegitimize the CPP government has taken on multiple faces over the past nine months as opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy, Kem Sokha, have punctuated their domestic appearances with foreign diplomatic trips.
At an event in December with the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee chairman in Los Angeles, CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha lauded the U.S. as a beacon of liberal democracy. Mr. Sokha said that he had been “financially supported by the American government for more than five years” in his work promoting democracy in Cambodia.
The following month, Mr. Rainsy told a Chinese television station that the opposition had “never received a single dollar from Western powers” and that the opposition party completely supported Chinese territorial claims against Vietnam in the South China Sea.
“This shows that we are not aligned with America, because America supports Vietnam,” Mr. Rainsy told Phoenix Television. “The CNRP, we stand with China.”
Mr. Sokha then met with U.S. Defense Department officials in Washington last week and said he was seeking U.S. military support against the CPP after the next election, which he said the CNRP was sure to win.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said that the opposition’s political opportunism was simply being exposed amid its rising prominence since the CNRP’s surprise gains in the July election.
“Sam Rainsy has always played the international community,” Mr. Thayer said.
“It’s his backbone against the Hun Sen government. In the past, he’s run off to the E.U. and to the U.N. to back him, and there’s no limit. He is a supreme political opportunist and now sees that China is very important to the Hun Sen regime, and is playing to that.”
Mr. Thayer noted that Mr. Rainsy’s attempts to woo China have had at least some impact, pointing to a report critical of Mr. Hun Sen published by China’s state news agency, Xinhua, near the height of the CNRP’s protests in Phnom Penh last year.
“But it’s hedging—China are not shifting away from the CPP,” he said. “They will work with whoever comes up, and Sam Rainsy’s comments would be music to China’s ears.”
Thun Saray, chairman of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that if the CNRP was serious about taking government, it should be more careful about creating entangling alliances.
“The CNRP leaders should have a discussion among themselves to be more sure about their external relationships,” he said. “I know that they would like to have moral and many support from the superpowers, but we are a small country. We cannot embrace and get support from two or three superpowers at the same time.”
“If you make the U.S. happy, you will make China not happy, that’s the problem.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that efforts of past Cambodian governments to maintain power through alliances with superpowers should prove instructive.
“What they are doing is lying to their supporters,” Mr. Siphan said. “They are trying to sell as much of our sovereignty as they can—and I mean sovereignty for Cambodia as independent state—for their support, just like in the Lon Nol regime,” Mr. Siphan said.
Mr. Rainsy, in an email from France, dismissed criticism of the CNRP’s diplomacy.
“With regard to internal politics…we will continue to seek the support of America because we share the same values,” Mr. Rainsy said, defending his comments on Chinese TV.
During a time in which “ideology has become secondary, even irrelevant” in international relations, and ties between the U.S. and Vietnam are strengthening, Cambodia must secure allies against Vietnam, Mr. Rainsy said.
“And when it comes to ensuring the survival of Cambodia as an independent nation, there is a saying as old as the world: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”