The ability of donors to pressure Cambodia into reform in areas such as human rights and democracy is decreasing due to China’s far greater influence in the country, according to a wide-ranging report prepared for the U.S. Congress on U.S.-Cambodia relations.
The report, prepared last month by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and written by Thomas Lum, a specialist in Asian affairs, says Cambodia has become less democratic and more prone to human rights abuses ahead of this month’s national election.
The 16-page report also tackles the broader geopolitical environment surrounding Cambodia’s relationship with the U.S. and underlines the challenges posed by the country’s strengthening links to China.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has initiated an economic and security “pivot” to Asia, largely seen as an effort to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.
But this is being challenged by the huge wave of military assistance and economic investment currently being afforded to Cambodia by China, the report says.
“As China’s economic and political influence has grown in Cambodia and the Lower Mekong Delta region, the Obama Administration has attempted to bolster U.S. ties with Cambodia and other countries in the region,” the report states.
“A key challenge for U.S. policy toward Cambodia lies in combining and balancing efforts to engage the Kingdom on a range of fronts while promoting human rights and democracy.”
The report also says there are concerns that China’s increasingly prominent role in foreign aid, military assistance and economic investment in Cambodia have downsides for the country’s democratic and economic development.
“Some human rights groups have criticized foreign aid donors for providing [overseas development assistance] despite the Cambodian government’s lack of progress in improving governance and fighting corruption,” the report states.
“Furthermore, many analysts argue that Chinese assistance has significantly reduced the effectiveness of other aid donors attempting to pressure Cambodia to make advances in the areas of rule of law, democracy and human rights.”
The report also refers to the numerous meetings between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Chinese leaders, at which aid and trade packages are normally agreed upon.
“Beijing has provided loans, trucks, helicopters, aircraft, uniforms, and training to the Cambodian Armed Forces,” it says, while pointing out that U.S military assistance to Cambodia has also increased.
Mr. Hun Sen has denied any undue influence from China, and has praised the country for investing and giving aid for infrastructure where others will not, and for not attaching strings to its generosity.
Cambodia National Rescue Party National Assembly candidate Son Chhay said that the current government’s close relationship with China was putting at risk the country’s constitutionally bound impartiality in international affairs.
“I think it’s dangerous,” he said, pointing out that it was China that was Cambodia’s main patron during disastrous periods of the country’s history.
“Today, the Chinese are interested in Cambodia’s resources, the forests and the raw materials for Chinese industry, but we see no serious benefits,” he said.
The CRS says that by some measures China is Cambodia’s largest provider of foreign aid, as well as its largest investor, and highlights concerns about dam-building projects.
“These hydropower projects are largely financed and constructed by Chinese banks, companies, and workers, often on terms that are unfavorable to Cambodia, according to critics,” it states.
As well as criticizing the environmental impacts of the dams, the report says, skeptics “add that there is very little transparency or public input regarding the conception, construction, and environmental assessments associated with these projects.”
However, it says, “Proponents of the dams argue that China is filling a void made by the withdrawal of the World Bank and other developed countries from hydropower projects in the region for reasons related to feasibility and environmental, social, and political costs.”
In January, a U.S. State Department delegation visited Cambodia and talked of getting more U.S. companies involved in infrastructure deals. No large deals involving U.S. firms have yet been announced.