Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) walks 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 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 Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visited a business expo held this month in China, his accompanying entourage expressed its gratitude for Beijing’s enduring support. China is a “strong backer who continues to help Cambodia in all conditions, without allowing any foreign countries to break us,” said commerce minister Pan Sorasak.

It was hardly an original sentiment: Hun Sen has long praised China’s no-strings attached approach to foreign and commercial policy, a departure from the democratic and good governance requirements often included with Western aid and investment packages.

But Sorasak’s praise for China had greater resonance than usual given the government’s recent arrest of the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), ahead of crucial elections scheduled for next year.

Kem Sokha was charged with treason this month for allegedly conspiring with Americans to topple Hun Sen’s government, charges both he and the US government have strongly denied. He is currently in pre-trial detention and could be sentenced to up to 30 years in jail if found guilty.

Days before Hun Sen’s trip to China, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang appeared to back Phnom Penh’s political crackdown, saying Beijing “supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability.”

“China wanted to offer its support to… Hun Sen for arresting Kem Sokha, as Cambodia’s internal security will be guaranteed,” a Cambodian parliamentary spokesman claimed in comments to local media.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) hugs Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) upon his arrival at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on April 22, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Many believe China’s support has emboldened Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to lead what is shaping into its most extreme crackdown on political dissent and opposition in years.

“China has given Hun Sen the diplomatic and economic wiggle room to launch the current crackdown,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.” “Previously Hun Sen couldn’t have repudiated US and other Western support so openly.”

In 1997, when Hun Sen launched a bloody coup to remove the royalist Funcinpec party from a coalition government, many Western nations cut all but humanitarian aid to Cambodia. China, however, came to Phnom Penh’s defense.

A visit by Hun Sen to Beijing a year before soothed longstanding bilateral tensions, dating back to China’s support for the radical Maoist Khmer Rouge. China tripled its investment in Cambodia between 1997 and 1998, and by 1999, it had become the largest donor to Cambodia’s state budget, providing more than US$250 million that year.

Still, the CPP government could not completely turn its back on Western democracies during the late 1990s or through the early 2000s, and reforms were vowed to assure sustained European and US support. Now, however, China is Cambodia’s largest investor, and provider of development aid and soft loans, funds which do not require any commitment to good governance, rights promotion or democracy.

“By making Cambodia less reliant on Western development aid, Chinese support has allowed Hun Sen to go further in repressing domestic dissent,” Strangio said.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands while wagging a finger at Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on January 26, 2016. Photo: AFP/Jacquelyn Marin

That trend is gathering a harsh pace. Recent weeks have seen the closure of an independent American-owned newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, for what many saw as arbitrary taxation reasons. Other US-funded news outlets have also been banned, while the US State Department-financed National Democratic Institute was expelled.

While the US and European Union have expressed strong statements on the crackdown, Hun Sen’s government knows it is still less authoritarian than Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Since neither the US nor EU have applied any meaningful sanctions on Cambodia’s neighbors – the opposite, in fact, for Vietnam – the worst Western nations will likely do is curb aid and loans, analysts say.

Leaked White House documents showed in April that the US was already planning to cut international aid, including to Cambodia, irrespective of democracy or human rights conditions. According to the reports, American aid to Cambodia was set to drop from US$83.5 million to just US$21.5 million in 2018.

“For our Cambodia, let [the US] cut it off 100%. We have no problem,” Hun Sen said about the possible aid cuts at the time. He has also carped loudly about a revived US demand that his government repay a Vietnam War era US$500 million debt incurred under a US-backed rightist regime. Last week, Hun Sen ordered the US’s Peace Corps volunteer group out of Cambodia.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, thinks that Cambodia’s importance for Beijing lies in its recent “undying loyalty.” While it is often said that China’s aid comes with “no strings attached”, that distinction is more true for domestic politics than foreign affairs, he says.

Case in point: Cambodia has twice irked its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) partners over China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea. Last year, Phnom Penh reportedly prevented Asean from issuing a strongly worded statement on the maritime area, which is contested by China and several Southeast Asian nations. Days later, China gave Cambodia US$600 million in new aid and loans.

A construction site developed by China Aid is seen on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia September 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Phnom Penh is now also known to be looking to China for guidance and support on local governance issues, which could explain Hun Sen’s recent lurch towards more authoritarianism. Last year, for example, Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice announced that China would help to “reform” its judicial system.

“At first I thought [China] was just going along with Cambodia, but now am not so sure anymore. Is the tail wagging the dog or the dog wagging the tail?” asked Sophal Ear.

In many ways, Cambodia and China’s relationship is ideologically aligned. Last year, the first China-funded think tank in Cambodia was launched at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. And this month the two nations announced they would establish another think tank in Cambodia that will study ways to prevent foreign-funded ‘color revolutions’ aimed at overthrowing their governments.

The overtly anti-US sentiment now on display in Phnom Penh certainly helps Beijing, which has long accused Washington of trying to covertly influence Asian affairs. The fact that Cambodia’s crackdown, laced with claims of an American conspiracy, comes just months before China’s Communist Party meets for its important Congress is likely to bolster President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic rhetoric as he seeks his third term as premier.

The Global Times, a jingoistic Chinese tabloid, recently claimed that “under the guise of ‘democracy and human rights,’ color revolutions upset development, accelerate societal splits, and will pose a huge threat to Cambodia’s security, stability and economic development.”

The article added: “The Hun Sen government’s vigilance on the issue is justified.”

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring 

According to author Strangio, Beijing has also shielded Cambodia from international criticism by “strengthening the idea that what happens inside Cambodia is Cambodian business.”

Indeed, a large part of Xi’s internationalist cache is built around notions of national sovereignty rather than international law. In December 2015, when he met with African leaders in Johannesburg, Xi stated that “China supports the settlement of African issues by Africans in the African way.”

Closer to home, he has spoken about the future of Asia being decided by Asians, or “Asia for Asians”, as the mantra goes. That notion, while criticized by some commentators as “Asia for China”, serves two important functions for Beijing.

First, it seeks to deny Western democracies the space to influence other nations’ domestic politics, with the tacit reminder of past colonialism. Second, it rebukes the idea of a multilateral world governed by universal human rights or shared values, giving precedence instead to matters of national sovereignty.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that ideology is the driving force behind strengthening Cambodia-China ties.

Strangio, for one, says that neither is the relationship built on “authoritarian solidarity”, as some have suggested in the wake of the recent clampdown. From Beijing’s perspective “the CPP is the best guarantor of peace and stability in the country, and hence, a useful partner for Chinese interests,” he said.

“Beneath all the high-flown language of eternal friendship,” the warming bilateral relationship “is a partnership of pure interests on both sides,” Strangio said.

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