In February, Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen commended himself for being the first world leader to visit Beijing since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan the previous month.
But showing fealty to his country’s most important ally and benefactor wasn’t the only reason for his visit.
Accompanying Hun Sen was his eldest son and heir apparent Hun Manet, who was pictured shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a photo-opportunity thought to be their first official meeting.
In recent months, Hun Sen, who has been in power consecutively since 1985, has spoken more openly than usual about a possible dynastic succession, oscillating between it being a fait accompli and still pending decision.
Cambodia’s squeezed position between the US and China is turning as Washington and Beijing sense they both could benefit from a father-to-son handover, though for very different reasons, analysts say.
In January, Hun Sen said: “I need ten 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.”
Last month, after claiming that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will remain in power for a further 100 years, Hun Sen asserted that “Hun Manet is not the only candidate [for Prime Minister] within the CPP—there are a lot of candidates.”
Hun Manet’s rise has been swift in recent years. In 2018, he was promoted to de-facto head of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and made a member of the CPP’s elite Permanent Committee.
Just last month, the 43-year-old was named the new head of the ruling party’s youth committee. He also serves on several important party subcommittees and has taken charge of the youth diaspora movement.
In the past year, he has also traveled widely as military chief, meeting with Cambodia’s main allies. Hun Manet has also taken over from his father in cross-country ribbon-cutting and graduation ceremonies. His Facebook page is now second only to Hun Sen in followers.
According to Hun Sen, a dynastic succession will come down to two issues. Firstly, whether the ruling party accepts his candidacy and, secondly, whether the Cambodian people want to elect him.
Given the CPP’s near-total chokehold over Cambodian politics, the latter is disingenuous, while the country’s parliamentary system means voters opt for parties, not leaders – and there is now no other party that can rival the CPP.
Yet, much debate still turns on whether Hun Manet, owing his position to the grace and whim of his father, has the respect of the ruling party’s more wizened and dogged senior officials, who rose to the top in the heady and dangerous days of the 1990s when the country was at war.
But another factor looms large: whether or not Hun Manet will be accepted by Cambodia’s key foreign partners.
Analysts say it is perceivable that foreign governments – chiefly the US, whose relationship with Phnom Penh has deteriorated since 2017 – are now adapting their policies towards Cambodia in anticipation of this dynastic succession.
For Cambodia’s closest ally, China, and for its old benefactor and neighbor Vietnam, Hun Manet would be a welcome sign of continuity.
Sophal Ear, associate professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says that Beijing is after “continuity of business,” both in the sense of China’s money-making enterprises in Cambodia and its geopolitical power projection in the region.
“So long as secret agreements are honored, [and Phnom Penh continues its] unwavering support for China’s stance on the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong security law, they’ll be happy,” he said.
Lindsay Hughes, senior research analyst at the Indo-Pacific Research Programme at Future Directions International, an Australia-based strategic research institute, saw Hun Manet’s visit to Beijing with his father as an important moment in Cambodia’s succession plans.
“There can also be little doubt that Hun Manet is seeking Mr Xi’s recognition as a future leader of Cambodia,” Hughes wrote at the time.
“That, in turn, will give a good impression to Mr Xi’s domestic audience,” she added, “who will see the visit as being equivalent to China’s ancient tributary system under which it appointed and dealt with the leaders of regional countries, who then ruled their fiefdoms with the Chinese Emperor’s blessing.”
For Washington, though, a Hun Manet premiership would be a sign of change. Not only is he English-speaking and US-educated, at 43 years old he is closer to in thought and age to the country’s more progressive-minded youths, as well as being removed from the all-or-nothing style of Cambodian politics that dominates his father’s generation.
Hun Manet studied at West Point, America’s elite military academy, reportedly at the cost of US taxpayers. Then, he received his master’s degree from New York University before gaining a doctorate in economics from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.
“In terms of foreign policy, a Hun Manet prime ministership may pave the way for a new rhetoric that seeks to strengthen ties with the US rather than increasingly align with China,” says Kimkong Heng, visiting senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“In this regard,” he added, “Washington would prefer a Hun Manet succession as quickly as possible, while Beijing may have to find new ways to engage Hun Manet in ways that it has courted Hun Sen.”
For at least the last decade, both Washington and Phnom Penh have viewed Hun Manet as a vehicle for dialogue. A leaked report by Stratfor, a global intelligence company, noted that from as early as 2010 “Hun Sen has been pushing his son [Hun Manet]…to work on his country’s military relations with the US.”
Indeed, despite worsening relations between Phnom Penh and Washington between 2017 and 2019, the US has been eager to maintain ties with the Cambodian military, which Hun Manet has led since 2018.
One of the first signs of souring ties was Hun Sen’s decision to cancel joint Angkor Sentinel military exercises in January 2017. At the time, Cambodian officials maintained China was not behind the decision.
Yet, two years later, ruling party spokesman Phay Siphan lashed out at US officials, namely US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter, for allegedly discussing politics with Cambodian military chiefs.
“We cannot accept it that a US military representative came here to talk with the Cambodian military on political issues,” Phay Siphan said at the time.
In early April this year, Hun Sen said he would be open to the idea of restarting joint military drills with the US, three years after Phnom Penh suspended regular exercises.
The belief that Hun Manet would offer a more reformist alternative to his father is also consistent with American thinking over the decades, which has reckoned a more progressive politician could out-marshal Hun Sen within the CPP.
From the 2000s onwards, a section of Washington believed that this reformist, more malleable alternative to Hun Sen was long-time Interior Minister Sar Kheng, according to leaked US cables.
According to some analysts, Hun Manet could soon reform Cambodian politics and restore closer relations with the US, which could explain Washington’s détente with Phnom Penh last year.
That marked a turn from America’s harsh reaction to Hun Sen’s elimination of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) opposition. The US cut aid to Cambodia and imposed sanctions on several senior military officials and tycoons in response to the democratic backsliding.
Several bipartisan bills put before the US Congress threatened not only to cut Cambodia’s trade privileges, but also blacklisted dozens of the country’s most powerful politicians, military leaders and tycoons. These bills all died in Congress, however.
Washington shifted its Cambodia policy in August of last year, when W Patrick Murphy, the outgoing head of the Department of State’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arrived in Phnom Penh as the new US ambassador.
In November, US President Donald Trump wrote to Hun Sen asserting the US didn’t seek regime change in Cambodia and wanted to improve relations, according to Hun Sen’s comments.
Trump offered more in February, after Hun Sen agreed to host the Westerdam cruise ship that had been turned away by other countries because it was suspected of carrying Covid-19 positive passengers.
Trump tweeted: “Thank you to the beautiful country of Cambodia for accepting the @CarnivalCruise ship Westerdam into your port. The United States will remember your courtesy.”
Opinions differ on why the US has rolled back its criticism. “Phnom Penh is too far gone into Beijing’s pocket, and no amount of coaxing is going to make it come out,” Sophal Ear says.
But Washington could be biding its time for a dynastic succession, after which it would double down on reviving relations under Hun Manet.
A near-term dynastic handover would make sense from Hun Sen’s perspective, especially as he has almost finished routing the CNRP’s opposition movement.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested for treason in September 2017, is still awaiting trial, though most analysts reckon he will be prosecuted but swiftly handed a pardon by Hun Sen, on the condition he doesn’t engage in politics.
Kem Sokha’s recent meetings and chats with Hun Sen make that appear a probable outcome.
At the same time, the now-dissolved opposition party’s other wing, led by exiled Sam Rainsy, has grown increasingly weak since it failed in its promised return to Cambodia last November, a homecoming Hun Sen easily managed to prevent.
Barring any major change or health issue for Hun Sen, 67, it’s possible and even probable that a leadership handover could happen sometime before the next general election set for 2023.
The ruling CPP is sure to win again without a proper opposition, and such a popular show of support would set up Hun Manet’s maiden premiership nicely, with foreign suitors likely waiting in the wings.