Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

When Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Cambodia last October, bringing with him a new aid deal worth US$237 million and a promise to forgive almost US$90 million in Phnom Penh-owed debts, he was greeted with open arms by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The long-serving Southeast Asian leader said that Cambodia’s recent fast development “could not have happened without the generosity of our Chinese friend.” Xi repaid the compliment, referring to Hun Sen as an “ironclad friend of China.” 

While currently Cambodia’s largest foreign donor of aid and loans, China has until now been a reclusive benefactor. Unlike aid from Western nations, Hun Sen frequently notes, Chinese largesse comes with “no strings attached” – meaning Beijing does not predicate its given funds on proven progress on democracy or rights.

Young love: Cambodian students hold portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) upon his arrival at Phnom Penh on October 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

That has been less clear with Cambodia’s foreign policy, which increasingly reflects Beijing’s position on thorny issues like the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

As at previous Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits, Phnom Penh was a lead voice against raising China’s “militarization” and “island-building” in the contested sea in a joint statement made after a late April summit meeting held in Manila.   

Until now, Beijing has shown no desire to wade into Cambodia’s topsy-turvy domestic politics, pitting Hun Sen’s long ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) against the upstart and suppressed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

China has recently built strong ties to Hun Sen despite its past support, including arms shipments, for the radical Maoist Khmer Rouge, which fought a long war against the CPP-led government after being ousted by Vietnamese invaders in 1979.   

Buried past: Villagers return home from enforced “communes” after Vietnamese invaders ousted the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime on February 03, 1979. Photo: AFP

With that painful history now mainly buried, there are signs China is dabbling again in Cambodia’s politics. In September, for example, Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice announced that China would help to “reform” Cambodia’s judicial system.

Reform is needed. A recent US State Department report described Cambodia’s courts as “politicized and ineffective”, while independent commentators have long claimed that judges are in the thrall of Hun Sen, including in recent court decisions to detain and threaten CNRP leaders and activists.

But it’s not clear to the same commentators that China is the best role model for fixing Cambodia’s broken judiciary considering its courts are even more politically controlled by the ruling Communist Party. Western governments have until now offered advice and assistance to build independent rule of law institutions in Cambodia.

“Clearly, Phnom Penh is looking away from the West when it comes to judicial reform,” said Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

Loud and clear: Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to the media in Kandal province, Cambodia September 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Hun Sen is also looking to Beijing for pointers on managing his message. Last month, a joint memorandum of understanding was signed between the two sides in Phnom Penh to boost cooperation between their state information agencies.

Cambodian information ministry officials will travel to China on “educational exchanges” as part of the agreement. Cambodian journalists, presumably from state news services or CPP-aligned media, will also be given scholarships to study in the People’s Republic. 

Critics fear the official exchanges will spell ill for Cambodia’s already stifled news outlets considering China’s sophisticated system of media censorship and control.

“Neither Cambodia nor China are known to have very strong independent media,” Sophal Ear said. “Neither Beijing nor Phnom Penh seem interested in nurturing anything more than mouthpieces for their version of the truth.”

Those ministerial level exchanges come against the backdrop of enhanced strategic ties. China vowed ahead of Xi’s visit last year to help modernize Cambodia’s armed forces through increased military aid. China became Cambodia’s top arms supplier in 2013.

Big brother, little brother: Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh (2nd L) shakes hands with a Chinese army advisor on March 12, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Hun Sen has since distanced his armed forces from the United States, seen in the abrupt cancellation this January of a planned joint exercises known as Angkor Sentinel. Exercises planned for 2018 have also been nixed for the reason the country will be in an election cycle.

Beijing is also helping Cambodia stage the polls. China has stumped up US$11.7 million for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) for cars, motorbikes, computers and printers for this June’s commune elections.

The polls are an important barometer of voter sentiment ahead of next year’s national polls pitting the CPP and CNRP in what is expected to be a close contest. The EU and Japan have given respectively US$6.7 million and US$1.1 million to help stage the commune polls.

While China has donated to help hold past Cambodian elections, including US$20,000 for goods needed to hold national elections in 2003, this year represents the first time it has provided more funds than any other donor nation.

Hun Sen, after years of hectoring from the EU and US on how to promote democracy and rights, is now looking instead to Beijing’s authoritarian model for advice on how to develop national institutions.

Move over Mao: Journalists pick up free copies of the book ‘Xi Jinping: The governance of China’ in Beijing, November 5, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

On April 11, the premier presided over a grand ceremony for the launch of the Khmer language edition of “The Governance of China”, a collection of Xi Jinping’s state building-related oratory. The book, Hen Sen said, could teach Cambodians about “good governance.”

In its coverage of Xi’s book launch in Cambodia, the state-run China Daily quoted Meas Sokunth, a Hun Sen adviser, as saying he believes China’s development is a good model for Cambodia. “The two countries have a strong diplomatic relationship and a similar culture and political environment,” he said without explaining. “That is why the Chinese experience can be applied here.”

Hun Sen, after years of hectoring from the EU and US on how to promote democracy and rights, is now looking instead to Beijing’s authoritarian model for advice on how to develop national institutions

“On a personal level, both Hun Sen and Xi Jinping likely see each other as a reliable partner … considering how [Hun Sen] is strengthening his grip on Cambodia’s fragile democracy and how power has been increasingly centralized in [Xi’s] office over the past few years,” said Miguel Chanco, lead Asean analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Xi is now the undisputed “core” of China’s leadership, a title bestowed upon him by the Communist Party’s Central Committee last October that has further bolstered his cult of personality. With Xi’s move away from the collaborative leadership style formulated by reformist premier Deng Xiaoping, some believe Xi is China’s most powerful leader since revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.

Culture clash: Portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping (center, L) and Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni on October 11, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Beijing is keen to disseminate its vision for Asia’s future – and China’s role at the center of it. China’s embassy in Phnom Penh provided funds last year to establish and develop the so-called Maritime Silk Road Research Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, a think tank dedicated largely to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Not all analysts agree China’s model is applicable considering Cambodia’s unique history, culture and tradition. “[But] there’s no doubt there are admirers who will ignore all that and drink the Kool-Aid,” says Cambodian-American academic Sophal Ear. “Phnom Penh seems to be enamored, but part of this could simply be acolyte behavior which might loosen the pockets of Beijing for a fistful of yuan.”

Cambodia needs the cash. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data shows that foreign aid to Cambodia – not including from China – fell by 14% last year, with inflows falling from US$970 million in 2014 to US $830 million in 2016. Analysts attributed some of that shortfall to Hun Sen’s recent ramped up repression of civil society groups and opposition CNRP members.

Hand out: A woman holds Cambodian 500 riel notes in central Phnom Penh. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“Given Cambodia’s sharp swing away from the United States and towards China, it is now compelled to take any help it can get in terms of non-economic development,” opined Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University and the author of “Beyond the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.”

Cambodia’s compulsion to embrace China will become more acute if US President Donald Trump gets his way on a national budget that envisions radical cuts in assistance to the developing world. An apparent leaked US State Department document published in US media in April showed that US aid to Cambodia would be 60% lower year on year in 2018, falling from US$77.4 million to US$22.9 million

Either way, expect Hun Sen to look increasingly towards China and away from the West for cues, cash and counsel on how to run Cambodia’s national affairs.

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