In a marathon public address on December 15, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen addressed public fears about a recent local outbreak of the coronavirus and outlined his government’s planned response.
Bracketed by three and a half hours of typical extempore remarks, the country’s perennial leader announced that his government would seek to acquire 1 million doses for its first batch of COVID-19 vaccinations. These it would order via the United Nations-backed COVAX facility, which subsidizes vaccines for 92 developing countries.
In his speech, which followed a spate of community transmissions in late November, Hun Sen also said that the government ultimately plans to purchase 26 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, which will give to 80 percent of Cambodian population – some 13 million people – free of charge.
He then went on to praise the Cambodian “public” for its contributions to the government’s vaccine fund. As of December 14, he said, the government has received at least $48 million in private donations, the vast majority of it from prominent crony tycoons and business conglomerates with intimate connections to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The comment that gained most media coverage was Hun Sen’s pledge that the Cambodian government country would only purchase vaccines that were certified by the World Health Organization (WHO). “Cambodia is not a dustbin… and not a place for a vaccine trial,” Hun Sen was widely quoted as saying.
Much international media coverage interpreted this as a repudiation of China, Hun Sen’s main foreign patron and partner, which had previously offered Cambodia preferential access to Chinese-developed vaccines (as it has for many other nations in Southeast Asia).
Under the headline, “Cambodia shuns China’s Sinovac vaccine in favor of COVAX shots,” Nikkei Asia reported that the above statement from Hun Sen “appears to rule out any early deal to secure the Sinovac vaccine from China, which has pledged to support vaccine efforts in Cambodia.” Similar headlines quickly appeared in other publications.
In recent years, Hun Sen’s Cambodia has become such a close ally and partner of Beijing that it is tempting to view anything short of craven support as a sign of hedging. The timing in terms of U.S. politics – with the impending transition to the Biden administration – lends further credence to the proposition that Hun Sen is subtly telegraphing his desire for a diplomatic reset, by showing that he is no Chinese toady.
But does this mean that Cambodia is turning its back on Chinese-developed vaccines? Not necessarily. For one thing, most reports hinged on the above quote, ellipsis included, which was not offered in direct context and did not mention China or its vaccines by name.
There are also alternative and complementary explanations for the Cambodian leader’s remark. The first is that Hun Sen meant exactly what he said: that Cambodia will only procure vaccines that have been approved by the world’s peak health body. A Health Ministry spokesperson quoted by the pro-government Khmer Times said that the Cambodian leader “has not rejected any vaccines.” “All Prime Minister Hun Sen said is that Cambodia will procure vaccines which have been approved by the World Health Organisation,” the spokesperson said.
The de facto CPP mouthpiece Fresh News, which usually offers a reliable gauge of official thinking, mentioned the sourcing of vaccines only briefly in the final line of one of the five articles it ran on Hun Sen’s speech. It stated that the Cambodian leader “made it clear that the Cambodian government will only buy vaccines that are recognized by the World Health Organization.” The WHO is yet to approve any vaccines, but these could well include one or more of the five currently under development in China.
The second, and related, explanation is that Hun Sen’s comment was an expression of nationalistic pride: namely, a promise that Cambodians would receive the same quality vaccines as more developed countries. This zealous desire to be treated as an equal in comparison with wealthier countries and their leaders has been a long-running theme in Hun Sen’s career. (Indeed, after years of being shunned by the Western democracies for the CPP’s repressive rule, it is one of the main things that has attracted him to China.)
While Hun Sen’s brief comment may reflect a desire to rebalance Cambodia’s foreign relations, it is difficult to draw the conclusion that Cambodia has repudiated China’s offer of access to COVID-19 vaccines. Indeed, the most logical thing for a country like Cambodia is to accept reliable inoculations from whomever is offering them, and given that the country has largely managed to control the spread of COVID-19, there is no need to rush into purchasing unproven vaccines from China, or anywhere else.
As Vongsey Vissoth, a secretary of state for the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance, was quoted as saying, “The government will buy a vaccine that is recognized by the World Health Organization, whether that’s through the COVAX Facility, via direct purchase from pharmaceutical companies, or through bilateral diplomatic channels.” If Chinese firms organize a viable vaccine, Cambodia is still likely to consider it.
While the quote from Hun Sen has probably been overanalyzed, it is certainly the case that Cambodian government has long sought a balance between its external patrons. One problem is that for the CPP, the imperative of self-preservation takes priority, making Hun Sen highly reluctant to introduce the democratic reforms necessary to thaw relations with the U.S. and other Western governments.
The second problem is that these governments are unlikely to improve relations absent such reforms. For complicated reasons, the U.S. and other Western governments continue to view Cambodia as a special case, a nation where there is a perceived moral and strategic imperative to stand on principle. This suggests that we are unlikely to see the degree of pragmatic accommodation that Western nations have made in their dealings with repressive neighboring countries including Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar.
This perception – and Hun Sen’s frustrated reaction to it – lies at the core of Cambodia’s recent alienation with the West and its headlong plunge into Beijing’s embrace. It will take a lot more than ambiguous public statements to throw this dynamic into reverse.