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Cambodia: Hun Sen Chooses Dependence on China; By Carlyle A. Thayer

Picture Courtesy: Cambodia Daily

C3S Article no: 0081/2017

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, September 4, 2017

We request your assessment of the following issues:

Q1. Do you think this is a big gamble to take on the US at this time? Do you think the government does not expect much push back from a Trump Administration-run State Department?

ANSWER: Cambodia is not on Trump’s radar screen. There is no real gamble about taking on the U.S. at this time as the Trump Administration has its hands full with stalled domestic legislation, the conflict in Syria, deteriorating relations with Russia, frustration with China, and most of all North Korea’s brinkmanship. The U.S. Mission in Phnom Penh has been doing much of the pushback but without senior officials in office at the Department State they are undermanned. As Trump’s speech on Afghanistan revealed he is not into national-building or the promotion of democracy and human rights. I doubt he cares about the National Democratic Institution.

The worst period of U.S.-Cambodian relations was in 1997 in the aftermath of the so called “coup” when the U.S. channeled its funds to NGOs. The State Department is likely to have its budget cut and Cambodia will not rank high in U.S. priorities.

Q2. It has been suggested this is because of the pivot towards China. How reliable is it for the government to place all its bets on China, and what effects can a US/EU sidelining have on the country?

ANSWER: Hun Sen has an acute sense of victimhood based on the legacy of U.S. support for the non-communist resistance during the period of Vietnam’s occupation. This sense of grievance has been amplified by post-UNTAC U.S. support for human rights and liberal democracy in Cambodia. Hun Sen was viewed as the spoiler and Sihanouk, Norodom Sirivudh, FUNCINPEC, Sam Rainsy, and the CNRP [Cambodia National Rescue Party] were the “good guys” because of their affinity with the west – Europe and North America.

Hun Sen is smarting as a result of outside support for the opposition in the commune elections. The results can be seen as a setback for the Cambodian People’s Party even though it won.

China follows a policy of non-interference in internal affairs, except where China’s interests are concerned. Hun Sun has learned to anticipate what will please Beijing and act as a willing sycophant. Hun Sen has decided now is the time to strike at the opposition and leave it weakened and hobbled as the 2018 national elections approach.

Hun Sen has already cast his die in favour of China. He has been handsomely rewarded and can easily replace aid and assistance from Europe and the United States.

Hun Sen benefits from the flow of Chinese aid, loans and investment. It keeps the CPP in power. The downside is that China’s interests are not congruent with the interests of the Hun Sen regime. Hun Sen has little leverage to deal with China when it makes demands. Beijing will call the shots and determine which projects are funded and which are not. If there is serious internal unrest in Cambodia that threatens Chinese business interests that Hun Sen cannot quell, Beijing will pivot in a heartbeat to another leader who can.

If Hun Sen goes too far in repressing the opposition, he could find it is the U.S. Congress that may take action. Cambodia has a special deal to export garments and textiles to the United States. This is Hun Sen’s Achilles heel. Cambodia can’t sell these exports to China.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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