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Cambodia: The Trump Administration and Hun Sen’s Pro-China Tilt; By Carlyle A. Thayer

, dated January 31, 2017

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C3S Article no: 0004/2017

Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Cambodia: The Trump  Administration and Hun Sen’s  Pro-China Tilt” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 19, 2017.

We are preparing an assessment about the coming Trump administration’s tough talk on China and what that might mean for Cambodia’s relationship with China and the United States in the coming years. We completely understand the difficulty of predicting just what a Trump administration will do, however, in light of comments on China by Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson we request your assessment of the following issues:

Q1. If the new U.S. administration does increase pressure on China over the South China Sea, how likely is Hun Sen to speed up his move away from the U.S. and toward China? How bad is Hun Sen prepared to allow relations with the U.S. to get?

ANSWER: Cambodia needs access to the U.S. market, also, Cambodia benefits from U.S. aid (and aid from Japan as well), this places restraints on how far Cambodia can turn away from the United States without any penalties. Besides, although Cambodia leans toward China it is not in Cambodia’s interest to become overly dependent on the China. If the U.S. ratchets up tensions with China, Cambodia can be expected to protest because of its impact on regional stability. The Hun Sen regime is mainly concerned about staying in power and keeping domestic politics trouble-free in 2017 when commune elections will be held and in 2018 when national elections will be held.

Q2. What are the chances that Cambodia’s decision to cancel its annual military exercises with the U.S. for the next two years was a reaction, possibly called in from Beijing, to Tillerson’s tough talk at his confirmation hearing (which happened just a few days earlier)?

ANSWER: Secretary of State designate Rex Tillerson’s remarks were off-the-cuff and do not yet represent official Trump Administration policy. Trump is more likely to focus on trade and currency issues with China and use Taiwan and the South China Sea as leverage towards these ends. Tillerson testified on 11 January and Cambodia announced its cancellation of military exercises five days later. This seems too short a period of time for Beijing to act and Phnom Penh to respond. Hun Sen has been adept at anticipating what will please China and given Trump’s criticism of China and China’s harsh response, Hun Sen may have calculated it was in his interest to ingratiate himself with Beijing. Another factor that may have weighed in Hun Sen’s decision was the election cycle and the likelihood of public protests by the opposition. Hun Sen may have taken the precaution to ensure that no American troops were in the country at that time.

Q3. Besides the exercises, if a more aggressive US position on the South China Sea does move Cambodia closer to China, what forms is that likely to take? And, critically, at what costs to Cambodia/Cambodians?

ANSWER: The year 2017 is not 2012 when Cambodia broke ranks with its fellow ASEAN members over the South China Sea. The Arbitral Tribunal is no longer hanging over ASEAN-China relations. President Duterte has put the Philippines’ policy into reverse.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib is currying favour with Beijing. And Vietnam has just sent it party leader to Beijing to seek reassurances that China will act towards Vietnam with restraint. With all this fluidity, a pro-China tilt by Cambodia would represent more continuity than change. Cambodia would find itself in good company in decrying U.S. assertiveness and its threat to regional stability.

A close China-Cambodia relationship, without any interference by Beijing in Cambodia’s internal affairs, will result in a strengthening of Hun Sen’s grip on power. It will mean an opportunity cost for those promoting democracy, human rights, the rule of law, human security and environmental protection.

Q4. On the other hand, there’s the impression that Trump may be good for autocrats like Hun Sen insofar as he puts business ahead of human rights. And we’ve seen Hun Sen endorse Trump. How is that possible advantage for Hun Sen likely to balance out against his needs to stick with China on the South China Sea should tensions there mount?

ANSWER: The Trump Administration will not give priority to Southeast Asia let alone Cambodia. President Trump has stated and signalled through his various appointments that his main priorities lie in defeating the Islamic State with Russian cooperation, improving ties with Russia (in order to break up the Beijing-Moscow entente cordial) and renegotiating the terms of trade and currency valuation with China. Taiwan not Southeast Asia is the main leverage point for Trump’s future relations with China. Trump is a realist when assessing power relations, Cambodia is unlikely to be on his radar screen.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: c.thayer@adfa.edu.au. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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