How China Came to Dominate Cambodia

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How China Came to Dominate Cambodia

How Cambodia went from denouncing China to being Beijing’s most faithful client state.

How China Came to Dominate Cambodia

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) extends a hand shake to China’s President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing (November 7, 2014).

Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Was Cambodia paid off?

In June, it reportedly forced ASEAN to retract a strongly-worded statement on the South China Sea dispute, irking many of its regional partners. (It did the same in 2012.) A few days later, China promised Cambodia another $600 million in aid and loans. Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed the allegation his government was ‘bought’ was not “fair for Cambodia,” adding: “I will not allow anyone to insult the Khmer nation. I am not supporting any one country.” However, the Chinese government certainly thought Cambodia was being deferential. The outgoing Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, Bu Jianguo, lauded Cambodia’s “neutral and fair stance over the South China Sea issue.” She added: “Not only the government of China, but also millions of our people appreciated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s stance.”

With the ASEAN and East Asia Summits fast approaching, the prevailing expectation is that Cambodia will once again earn China’s ‘appreciation’ by blocking any unified movement on the South China Sea issue.

In recent months, the Cambodian government has engaged in much encomium over China. On August 3, Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong stated that Cambodia’s development “could not be detached” from Chinese aid. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan enthused: “Without Chinese aid, we go nowhere.” Such remarks are clear examples of just how close Cambodian and China have grown.

But it wasn’t always the case. To retell a clichéd contradistinction: in 1988 Hun Sen described China as “the root of everything that is evil” in his country. Twelve years later, China was Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend” according to the prime minister. What explains this volte-face? How did China go from the serpent in Cambodia’s Eden to its trust guide?

A little history is necessary. In 1958, five years after Cambodia gained its independence, Norodom Sihanouk formally established ties with communist China. (Sihanouk came to the throne in 1941, and ruled either as king or chief of state until 1970). Aid began flowing southward into Cambodia, used by Sihanouk to secure his country’s neutrality between United States and the Soviet Union, along with Moscow’s partner, Vietnam. However, after renouncing U.S. aid in 1963, Sihanouk moved closer to China and the communist bloc than the word “neutrality” would allow. For China, Cambodia provided a stable base to expand its influence in Southeast Asia.

Geopolitics, of course, were certainly at the foreground of this relationship, but so too were personal friendships. An insightful essay by Julio A. Jeldres, Norodom Sihanouk’s former private secretary, published in 2012, tells of the rapport between the Cambodian leader and China’s then-premier Zhou Enlai, which began after their first meeting in 1955. Above all, flattery was the order of the day, and “Sihanouk was impressed by Zhou’s courtesy, which made him feel that much smaller Cambodia was on a par with ‘great China’ and that he and Zhou were equals,” Jeldres wrote. Nor to be overlooked was the importance of the Chinese community in Cambodia. “Relations between [the] majority community and the Chinese [local population] are probably better than in any country in Southeast Asia,” wrote William E. Willmott in his 1967 book, The Chinese in Cambodia.

The emergence of the Khmer Rouge, however, proved problematic. Because of China’s support for the KR, Sihanouk initially severed ties with the PRC. But they were reinstated when, following a coup against him in 1970, Sihanouk became the public face of the KR from his home in Beijing. When the Pol Pot regime finally fell in 1979, four years after taking power, following Vietnamese liberation or invasion (depending on who you ask) Cambodia could not escape cold-war rivalry. The U.S. and China, now allies, opposed the Vietnamese-backed government, led by Hun Sen, effectively from 1985 onward. Instead, they supported the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, a “government-in-exile” composed of unlikely bedfellows: the Khmer Rouge, the royalist Funcinpec party, and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, an anti-Vietnamese, anti-Communist force. China wanted a government led by Sihanouk, its old friend. ASEAN (comprised of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand in 1985) was in solidarity with the United States. The Soviet Union was in solidarity with Vietnam and, therefore, the Hun Sen regime. An impasse, to say the least.

But then cracks began. Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan broke with the ASEAN line and embraced the Hun Sen government in 1988. This was aided by the normalization of relations between the Soviet Union and China. Then, on September 26, 1989, the last Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia and, two years later, the four Cambodian factions (the Hun Sen government plus the previously mentioned three composites of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea) met in Paris to end the Cambodian civil war.

A brief transitionary task force led by the UN oversaw Cambodia’s shift from a nominally socialist state to a nominally democratic one, and work began on organizing an election. However, Hun Sen kicked up a fuss over the 1993 elections, won by Funcinpec and its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) coming in second. An arrangement was made for both Hun Sen and Ranariddh to serve as prime ministers, with the CPP and Funcinpec sharing power in government. It was far from the best option, and, as the former American diplomat Timothy Carney put it, “everybody was basically tired of the whole thing and wanted to create a fix that Cambodians could live with.”

The watershed years of new Chinese-Cambodian relations came in 1996 and 1997. On July 18, 1996, Hun Sen was invited for a state visit to Beijing. China sent a plane to collect him, impressing the prime minister. Before boarding, he announced that the visit would end “the suspicion of the past.” During the next five days, he met with President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, signed a new agreement on trade and investment, and established an accord for members of the CPP and the Communist Party of China (CPC) to meet. But most significant was that China had not invited officials from Funcinpec to join the traveling delegation of the Royal Government of Cambodia. This snub wasn’t accidental, nor petty. China had justifiably reasoned that Hun Sen was the man it could do business with in Cambodia. (Also in 1996, Hun Sen oversaw the defection of the Khmer Rouge’s Ieng Sary, signalling its end, and Cambodia formally severed ties with Taiwan, communist China’s long-standing enemy.)

Buoyed by his visit to China, and, perhaps confident of its patronage, in July 1997 Hun Sen launched a coup against Funcinpec, ousting the party’s politicians from the power-sharing government. Western donors cut all but humanitarian aid and chastised the CPP’s takeover. ASEAN suspended Cambodia’s membership in the bloc, expected the following month. China, however, quick to an opportunity, carried on regardless, supplementing Cambodia’s financial shortfall with its own aid. The events of 1997 provided Hun Sen with confidence that China would stand by his government when Western nations put their foot down, however timidly — and Beijing would increase its aid in doing so. Any autocrat would be happy with a friend like China.

In foreign affairs circles there is a cliché of tails wagging dogs.” And in common parlance there is the invective of “biting the hand that feeds.” In its relationship with the United States, the Hun Sen government likes to think it’s doing the former and be seen doing the latter. A gulf also exists in the U.S. stance on Cambodia: the Obama administration (much like earlier administrations) has oscillated between pragmatism and idealism, a mismatch seldom effective. When the president paid a visit to Phnom Penh in November 2012, U..S politicians urged him to publicly address human rights abuses when meeting Hun Sen. This he was said to have done, though at a rather brief meeting with the primer minister. Today, following the arrest of opposition lawmakers andcivil society workers and the killing of political commentator Kem Ley, the United States still resists taking a strong position on the Hun Sen government. One suggestion is that it prefers a stable Cambodia to a democratic Cambodia, a similar sentiment expressed in the early 1990s. Another is that it has resisted imposing sanctions on Cambodia lest it forces Phnom Penh even closer to China. This Hun Sen knows and manipulates to his own benefit.

However, if Sihanouk used China in the 1950s and 1960s to advance neutrality, Hun Sen cannot be said to be doing the same. He has boasted in the past that “Cambodia cannot be bought.” Few would take him at his word. “Cambodia is increasingly seen as an extension of China’s foreign policy,” Sophal Ear, an Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, California, told The Diplomat. “A country that does not have its own foreign policy is a colony of another country, no?”

The U.S. remains Cambodia’s largest export market, but in recent years China has taken the mantle of its largest provider of foreign aid. “[While] Beijing’s giant state corporations have invested billions of dollars in dams, oilfields, highways, textile operations, and mines, it is the low-profile, family-owned Chinese firms that have come to dominate the Cambodian investment landscape,” wrote Sigfrido Burgos and Sophal Ear in their essay, “China’s Strategic Interests in Cambodia: Influence and Resources.” A short drive through Phnom Penh reveals an abundance of Mandarin-inscribed posters boasting construction of everything from luxury condos and non-pot-holed roads to cancer hospitals. Few would reject the suggestion that Chinese aid has been instrumental in Cambodia’s economic growth, though not its political maturity. But the way is does so is hardly new. Consider the following passages taken from an essay written by Alain-Gerard Marsot, titled “China’s Aid to Cambodia,” published in 1969:

“For Chinese aid, though ostensibly without strings, was a means of increasing Chinese influence in that country [Cambodia].”

“There is the inclination of Chinese aid towards programs of industrialization.”

“Cambodia can be used by China as a spokesman on the international level.”

“It must not be forgotten that aid contributes to establishing and consolidating markets and, above all, that Chinese aid is motivated by political considerations of influence and prestige. These considerations are undoubtedly linked to her aim of displacing the Soviet Union in the underdeveloped countries, especially in Asia.”

Granted, I have selected these quotes out of a paper of several thousand words. But if one was to substitute “Soviet Union” in the last passage for “the United States,” or simply “the West,” a great deal of continuation can be seen in how China approaches financial assistance to Cambodia.

“If any modern relationship between China and a Southeast Asian country smacks of the old ‘tributary system,’ it is the one between Beijing and Phnom Penh,” wrote the retired diplomat and professor Bronson Percival in his 2007 book, The Dragon Looks South: China and Southeast Asia in the New Century. Indeed, Cambodian politics is ruled by a patronage network where money floats all the way to the top, seldom trickling down, and where one’s position rests on the backing of a superior. The relationship between Cambodia and China is analogous. Aside from aligning with its foreign policy, Cambodia is also essential for Chinese capital. Writing specifically about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, one of the largest infrastructure projects in history, connecting China to East Africa and Eurasia, Gal Luft, Co-Director of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, stated in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs:

“[The] unstated goal is… to save China from the economic decline that its slowing growth rate and high debt levels seem to portend. The infrastructure initiative, China’s leaders believe, could create new markets for Chinese companies and at the same time provide a shot in the arm to the struggling banks and state-owned enterprises whose disgruntled bosses might otherwise trouble the current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”

A verbatim statement could be made of China’s economic interests in Cambodia. Foreign aid flows one way, and profits the other. What’s more, Cambodia, as with much of Southeast Asia, is also essential to China as a provider of cheap energy. Laos is gradually becoming the “battery of Southeast Asia,” according to the cliché, and a great deal of that energy heads north of the border. Pundits have also described China’s now stalled dam-building efforts in Myanmar as an overt means of producing cheap electricity for its own population. Dams are also being constructed along Cambodia’s portion of the Mekong River, while China has also shown its interest in the long-vaunted game of Cambodian oil. “China has allegedly acquired the rights to offshore Cambodian oil fields by purchasing a firm with pre-existing claims. Recent geological work suggests that significant amounts of oil and gas may reside underground throughout Cambodian territory,” wrote Burgos and Ear. Given that the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority, the administrator of oil contracts, is in the hands of the prime minister, China would have a willing sponsor. (On a smaller note, if the Phnom Penh grapevine means anything, then an additional bonus is Cambodia’s ranking as the highest-risk nation in Southeast Asia, and sixth globally, for money laundering, according to the 2016 edition of the Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index.)

In his book, Percival described China as “the prime guarantor of Cambodia’s national security.” Rather, more accurately, China could be said to be the prime guarantor of the CPP’s security. It has allowed Hun Sen to rule in a way that would have resulted in sanctions and international censure from the other countries. Even the threat of China has meant Western nations are lax on challenging his rule. More important, however, is that China’s money and infrastructure developments have provided a semblance of economic progress in Cambodia. One might be inclined to say that many voters care more about tarmacked roads and cheap imports than Cambodia’s international diplomacy, or, abhor the thought, democracy. (Though such an interpretation can be exaggerated.)

Looking ahead, nothing indicates the current Cambodian government will change its attitude, unless to harden it. But it’s seldom acknowledged that it isn’t only the CPP that has thrown its support behind China, albeit for different reasons. The largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), tilts almost stumblingly to the West. Its president, Sam Rainsy, is currently in self-imposed exile in France, where he lived for much of his early life, and during his three previous stints in exile. In 2014, the CNRP’s vice-president Kem Sokha said in no uncertain terms that “we don’t want to be ally with the communist like Red China. We want to be a USA ally.”

But the CNRP’s pro-Western, anti-China stance crumbles when its bête noire comes into question. Its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is well-documented and, back in 2014, Sam Rainsy stated clearly: “We are on the side of China, and we support China in fighting against Vietnam over the South China Sea issue… The islands belong to China, but yuon is trying to occupy [the islands] from China, because yuon is very bad.” Sam Rainsy claims the word yuon, a reference to Vietnam or Vietnamese, is not derogatory, though many believe it is. (You can take the temperature of a politician who descends so quickly down the “an enemy of my enemy is my friend” line of reasoning.) Three years on, following July’s settlement of the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case at The Hague, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann took a less impassioned position when, responding to the news, he said: “I think the CNRP do not consider anyone an enemy. When we’re in power, we’ll develop cooperation through mutual respect.”

Nevertheless, the CNRP’s chauvinism would certainly pose difficulties if its natural ally, the U.S., calls on the party to support its position on the South China Sea dispute. If China is correct that Vietnamese-claimed islands are its own, why shouldn’t it also be so for those claimed by the Philippines?

If the CNRP wins the 2018 general election (or if the CPP is willing to hand over power) it appears uncertain how Cambodia’s relationship with China would develop. As Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) found out following its victory at the polls last year, the natural inclination for “pro-democracy” parties to gravitate closer to the United States proves problematic when in power. That Suu Kyi chose Beijing, not Washington, as the first major capital she visited after the NLD’s victory meant a great deal. In any case, 2018 will be yet another watershed year for Sino-Cambodian relations. If the CPP wins, it seems almost certain that relations will continue as normal. If the CNRP does what seems highly unlikely and forms a government, the relationship will certainly be under debate.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.