On August 12, the European Union will finally follow through on its threat to impose a suspension of trade preferences on Cambodia. The long-awaited move, which will restore tariffs on around a quarter of Cambodia’s exports, comes in response to a fierce political crackdown by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has seen it outlaw the main opposition party, jail political opponents, and run the table on the 2018 national elections — all while nuzzling up to Xi Jinping’s China.
The EU’s action is indicative of a broader hardening of attitudes toward Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. Members of the U.S. Congress have threatened similar trade restrictions, and the Treasury Department has targeted three of Hun Sen’s cronies with sanctions. Yet these measures are unlikely to push Cambodia back onto a democratic path, nor to prize it away from China’s smothering embrace. Instead, they are deepening a pattern of mutual incomprehension that has dogged Western relations with Cambodia for nearly three decades.
The primary shortcoming in Western policy has been a lack of what is sometimes termed “cognitive empathy”: namely, the ability of policymakers “to [put] themselves in the shoes of the world’s various actors and see how the world looks to them.” As Western nations punish Hun Sen for his authoritarian turn and embrace of China, they seemingly give little thought to how their actions are viewed in Phnom Penh, nor to the broader political and ideological dynamics that have brought relations to this point.