Hun Manet, eldest son of Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, attends a sporting event in Phnom Penh in January 2018. Photo: Reuters

It was quite a coup for Hun Sen. Last week, the Cambodian prime minister traveled to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping, who hadn’t made a public appearance for more than week at the time.

Given his usual ubiquitousness, and given that the Chinese Communist Party is facing one of its most taxing challenges in decades with the coronavirus outbreak, Xi’s absence has been puzzling – and led to all sorts of rumors, from an illness or possible stroke to even a palace coup. But not only did Xi turn out publicly to meet the leader of one of China’s most loyal allies, it made Hun Sen the first foreign premier to make a formal visit to Beijing since the coronavirus epidemic began.

“Hun Sen says he is making the visit to show that Cambodia is a steadfast supporter and die-hard friend of China,” the Chinese state broadcaster reported. The state-run tabloid, Global Times,  intoned in an opinion article that “at this special moment, Hun Sen and the Cambodian people have demonstrated the deep and sincere friendship between China and Cambodia through actions.  The docile Khmer Times proclaimed: “Although Cambodia is much smaller and weaker than China, the bilateral relationship is equal because both countries have shown mutual respect, especially with regards to national sovereignty and independence.”

But Hun Sen could have done the same as other China allies and simply issued ingratiating statements from his own capital and, as a press release issued on Hun Sen’s Facebook page made clear, there were reasons for his visit other than esprit de corps. “China will continue to support free trade talks between the two countries which have to be sped up,” the release stated, referring to a planned Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement. “The Chinese government will encourage more Chinese investors to invest in Cambodia and import Cambodian products into China.”

This comes amid one of Phnom Penh’s most taxing periods, too. First, the government’s ban on online gambling last August led to a mass exodus of Chinese nationals from Cambodia, especially from Sihanoukville, a coastal city that has become a mess of casinos and back-alley gambling dens catering to a surging Chinese tourism market. The ban and departure of hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals, however, has severely hit that local economy.

Second, the coronavirus has already rigorously dented Cambodia’s tourism market, now reliant on Chinese visitors, and should the pandemic last for more months, it could worsen still. Third, next week the European Union might rule to throw Cambodia out of its preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which will be a major blow for the country’s export-driven economy and manufacturing sectors.

In all these areas, Phnom Penh will need not only moral support from Beijing; it could also require a significant amount of new loans and investment, even new quotas on imports, from China if its tourism and manufacturing sector aren’t to implode. One imagines Beijing has also offered to have a subtle word with Chinese companies already invested in Cambodia, lest they think about exiting the country in the event of economic downturn.

But there may be another outcome of the visit, as well. Consider the aforementioned Khmer Times editorial, entitled “Cambodia-China: Solid and ironclad friendship.” Since this newspaper, and especially its publisher, can be trusted to publicly push the desired narrative of a certain section of the ruling party (with which it is rumored to enjoy very close ties with), consider the opening paragraphs of this editorial. “The bilateral political and strategic trust between the two countries is deep and solid. No outside force can change this,” it states, before quickly adding: “The future generations of leadership in both countries will continue to nurture and sustain this traditional friendship.”

Why this focus on the next generation? Well, travelling with Hun Sen to Beijing last week was Hun Manet, his eldest son and heir apparent, who even had the opportunity to shake hands with, and speak to, Xi. One imagines Xi will have a say over whether Hun Sen actually goes ahead with his long-speculated dynastic succession. The Khmer Times intoned: “Connecting and building trust between the young generation of leadership between the two countries is crucial for the future bilateral friendship and partnership. Mr Hun Sen has sent a clear signal that the ironclad friends will continue to blossom for future generations.” Introducing your heir would certainly do that.

Since becoming the de-facto military leader in late 2018, Hun Manet has been busy travelling the world and meeting with other senior officials from close allies of Cambodia, including the leaders of neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. But meeting Xi last week (which I believe is the first time he has done so formally and in public) is by far his most important tête-à-tête yet.

Hun Sen might have attempted to dispel succession rumors last month, on the anniversary of his 35th year in power, when he said: “I need 10 more years to hold the post as prime minister… Even though Hun Manet has the adequate qualification, he needs to wait till 2028 or after 2029 or until 2030 to be involved with the prime minister position.” But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

If he confirmed succession plans this early, it would give the game away and perhaps entice intra-party tensions before Manet’s place is secure. Indeed, the Phnom Penh grapevine no longer chatters about whether Hun Sen wants to engage in some sort of dynastic succession (that is generally agreed), but whether it is possible.

The Phnom Penh grapevine no longer chatters about whether Hun Sen wants to engage in some sort of dynastic succession (that is generally agreed), but whether it is possible

A number of pundits take the opinion that other ruling party elites wouldn’t support such a move and could try to block it. And Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of the now-dissolved main opposition party, has been putting it about recently that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is more divided than most people think, and tensions between Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng are real and palatable.

It is true that Manet, at the moment, doesn’t have the complete party’s backing. But he’s not far off. The retirement of the army’s most senior officials before the 2018 general election (who were later made government officials) and structural changes to promotions and nepotism last year, means Manet’s supremacy over the military is secure. His appointment in late 2018 to the CPP’s Permanent Committee, its politburo, allows him to hob-nob with the party’s other elites.

I also hear he sits on several important working groups, which are tasked with managing certain sectors and policies. Expect him to this year take over more public engagements from his father, like graduation ceremonies and speaking to garment workers – exercises that build trust with the public. His use of Facebook is also far better than most party elites. Plus, of course, he has the backing of his father, by far the most powerful official in the country, and his family, who run most of the country’s media and party organizations, and have the loyalty of the king-making tycoons.

But Manet won’t just need the full backing of Cambodia’s political elite; he’ll also need to get the nod from China’s. Beijing will, indeed, need to be assured that Cambodia’s next leader is someone they can trust to continue the policies, and have the political instincts and guile, of Hun Sen, one of the most formidable and natural “strongman” leaders in the world – the “Machiavelli on the Mekong”, if you will. One also mustn’t forget that Hun Sen was implanted as the Cambodian Prime Minister in 1985 by the puppet-masters in Vietnam, the patron of Cambodia at the time, so he is familiar with paying heed to the demands of suzerains.

China has paid quite handsomely, and taken many years, to attain the sort of power it now wields over Phnom Penh – which allows Beijing a proxy within the ASEAN bloc to vote against certain anti-China motions, especially those relating to the South China Sea. It won’t want all that to be wasted on a potentially untrustworthy new leader, even if he is the prime minister’s son.

Also read: Hun Sen has an existential corruption problem

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