How the US-China Competition Influenced Cambodia’s Domestic Politics

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Feb. 5, 2020. (Xinhua)
  • Len Ang
  • October 19, 2020 10:40 AM

The values of both the CPP and the CNRP have been shaped by their would-be political allies abroad, but the increasing hostility between China and the US risks dragging Cambodia into a conflict it would do well to avoid.

PHNOM PENH--The domestic politics of Cambodia are being influenced by the ongoing competition between the US and China, with some ASEAN member states being accused of taking China’s side as the competition for influence hots up in Southeast Asia.

Since 2012, Cambodia has been identified as a hotspot for this competition following numerous accusations that it has become too dependent on China. Although Cambodia appears neutral, it has supported China by playing an obstructionist role that prevented resolution in the South China Sea conflict while Cambodia was chair of ASEAN in 2012.

So how did Cambodia acquire this image of being so close to China’s sphere of influence and why did its relationship with China become such a pivotal question? Many appear to study the regional contests that erupt from the US and China’s power plays in Southeast Asia, but often the domestic political powers of Cambodia are neglected.

The balance of power assured by the now-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been lost, with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) now the sole determinant of Cambodia’s political alliances and allegiances. While the CNRP remained popular with the West, notably the EU and the US, the ruling party claims to welcome all support, but appears to favor China as an ally over all else.

Neither the CPP nor the CNRP condemned the conflict of domestic politics in Cambodia, both actively played a role in contesting seats and in the 2013 national election, the CNRP gained an unprecedented 55 seats out of the 123-seat National Assembly—an increase of 26 from the 2008 elections.

However the CNRP contested the results of the 2013 national elections, citing irregularities in counting the votes and boycotting the formal opening of parliament. The CPP meanwhile still had the two-thirds majority needed to form a government in accordance with the Cambodian Constitution.

Eventually the two parties brokered a deal and parliament was in session with the former opposition party. Then the 2017 commune elections happened and once again the CNRP made impressive gains, but those gains would never be built upon in the 2018 national elections. The months that followed the 2017 commune elections saw the CPP accuse the opposition party’s leadership of plotting to topple the Cambodian government with support from the US.

The CNRP was officially dissolved by the Supreme Court and 118 senior party officials were banned from political activities for the next five years. With few other viable opposition parties, the CPP went on to win all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 national election. Kem Sokha, leader of the CNRP, was sent to prison and later released to be placed under house arrest before the EU threatened to withdraw Cambodia’s trade privileges.

While Kem Sokha has been under house arrest, the now-acting president of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy—along with other senior party officials escaped Cambodia in self-exile and have been prevented from entering the country. This level of political repression has created an international image that Cambodia is moving towards a form of authoritarianism that closely mirrors China’s model of governance.

China and Cambodia Exchange Support

The dissolution of the CNRP brought Cambodia’s domestic politics to the international stage, with governments and civil society organizations urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to drop the treason charges leveled against Kem Sokha. China, on the other hand, has assured the Cambodian government of its support in the suppression of a political opposition, citing the need for stability, peace and sovereignty.

In the event of any sanction of criticism leveled against the Cambodian government’s human rights record or restrictions on political freedoms, China has again pledged its support—further creating tension. One critical moment was when the Cambodian government decided to call off a bilateral military exercise with the US. Instead, China stepped in to replace the US in conducting military drills with the Cambodian Armed Forces. In return, Cambodia voiced support for China’s increasingly ruthless stranglehold on Hong Kong, and Cambodia was one of the few nations stepping up to support China’s controversial National Security Law.

Such gestures have created more friction between China and the West, with both the US and the EU raising concerns over China’s role in Cambodia ranging from money laundering to the construction of a Chinese naval base in Koh Kong Province. While Cambodia has denied the latter accusation repeatedly, few foreign governments appear convinced and have expressed concern that China is attempting to destabilize the region.

Since then, Cambodia’s government has faced mounting pressure from the international community in a bid to reduce China’s influence in Cambodia’s domestic politics.

The EU, citing gross human rights abuses, partially suspended Cambodia’s access to the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade agreement. The US withdrew bilateral aid in the aftermath of the 2018 elections, but Sweden has since followed suit in 2020. China, no doubt, supported Cambodia and injected funds into the 2018 national election, but the competing foreign interests have left Cambodia’s domestic politics frustrated and ultimately unresolved.

In this situation, the Cambodian government is left with little choice but to divert its engagement with the EU and the US to focus on those who offer aid with conditions it can abide by. Hun Sen has previously vowed not to bow down to the EU over the EBA debacle, but warned that the opposition party would be “dead” if the EU completely revoked Cambodia’s access to the trade agreement.

Finding New Trade Partners

Since then, Cambodia has signed a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with China, which is expected to be implemented from January 2021. The government is also looking beyond China to work on other bilateral trade deals with South Korea, Japan, the UK, and India for the potential replacement of the partial suspension of the EBA. While Cambodia welcomed support from all great powers in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has continued to employ repressive tactics against supporters of the CNRP and other critics.

Subsequently, more human rights defenders, including union leader Rong Chhun, have been detained. Chhun was accused of incitement over his comments on the demarcation of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, but his arrest sparked many more protests that were swiftly shut down by the government. Many more young activists, environmentalists and journalists were detained over the course of 2020.

Following the accusations of allowing China to build a naval base on Cambodian territory, the US slapped Chinese company Union Development Group (UDG) with Magnitsky sanctions over its role in human rights abuses and corrupt acquisition of land from Cambodians, but Cambodia’s membership in China’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) effectively means that US sanctions won’t prevent Chinese infrastructure development in Cambodia.

Previously, the US had sanctioned one prominent Cambodian businessman and two senior government officials for human rights violations, with both the Cambodian government and the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia denouncing the sanctions and requesting they be revoked.

Cambodia Can Still Avoid Conflict

While Cambodia seems to be siding with China in the regional showdown, Vietnam has been seen growing closer to both the US and the EU, which may provide a test for Cambodia.

Vietnam toppled the Pol Pot Regime in 1979 and installed the Phnom Penh Government led by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen. The US and Vietnam were former enemies, but are now becoming close political allies. Cambodia's role in the South China Sea's conflict and being a Chinese ally may create concern for Vietnam who is also a claimant state.

Therefore Cambodia needs a genuine policy of neutrality to avoid being sucked into the fierce competition between China and the US.

In the context of the China-US power competition, which will likely continue for many years into the future, the Cambodian Government and leaders of the parties need to re-assess their past experiences to reassure political unity. They need to solve political problems internally.

The leaders of CPP and dissolved CNRP should work together on the principles of the Paris Peace Agreement 1991 and the Cambodian Constitution that has delineated neutrality, sovereignty, liberal democracy (with regular elections), and human rights as core elements of the country. When there is a lack of political unity and power reconciliation for prosperity and development for universal human rights principles, it creates fragility, putting the country in a position where it needs to take sides between China and the US amid their contest in the region.

Len Ang is an Independent Analyst   

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