China and the Post-Election Impasse in Cambodia

by Akshan de Alwis

One of the overarching foreign policy dilemmas that face South-East Asian nations is that of dealing with the two looming super-powers of the world: China and the United States.  While the United States has had a vested interest in the region since the Vietnam War, the influence of China has been constant since the Qin dynasty. South East Asian nations often pick sides in order to reap the benefits of aid or investment. However, over the past decade, Cambodia has managed to play both sides: letting huge amounts of American and Chinese money fuel its economy.

The core of the game Cambodia has been playing lies in appeasement and facade. Cambodia’s Prime Minster Hun Sen has been masquerading as a democratically elected official since 1998, and despite a surfeit of electoral corruption allegations still claims to represent a free and fair democratic system. In 1988, Hun Sen called China “the root of everything evil.” During the infamous Khmer Rouge years, China was the regime’s main ally, providing cash and material aid until 1990. Now Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge defector and one of the main instigators of its downfall, relies on millions of dollars in soft loans from China. Despite Hun Sen’s insistence that “Cambodia cannot be bought,” China is on the verge of making Cambodia into a puppet state.

July’s general elections represent a major cornerstone in modern Cambodian history. In past elections, opposition parties struggled to gain momentum in a political arena dominated by the vanguard Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Cambodia’s relatively free civil society has done little to aid the opposition, as most journalists write in English. Hun Sen and the CPP have been free to improve electoral conduct each election without fear of losing power, using these changes as excuses to receive more and more aid from the West. But as the power of the opposition increases by leaps and bounds, thanks mostly to increased youth involvement and the greater proliferation of information, Hun Sen is forced to confront the weaknesses of the façade  of democracy in Cambodia.  China’s support of Cambodia strengthens Hun Sen’s hold on power.  Hun Sen is secure in the support of China, which is more than willing to loan and invest billions of dollars to gain a much needed ally in the region.

Without the pretense of appealing to the West, Hun Sen has gone to extreme and sometimes laughable lengths to stamp down the opposition. In the months before the elections, Hun Sen announced plans to try to pass a bill that would ban “political invectives.” “I fully support having a code of ethics for political party leaders to use, but [a code of ethics] is not strong enough to bind the insulter,” Hun Sen stated. “Therefore, there must be a proposed law on how long the insulter’s jail term will be if insults such as ‘traitor’ are used.”

Hun Sen’s own feelings aside, analysts have decried the bill as a method to muzzle opposition. Many pointed out that Hun Sen himself used to call his rivals a litany of names, including “dog’, “cat”, and “no-brains.” Hun Sen has already been using a stringent and vague defamation law to trap opposition politicians in expensive and protracted law suits.

Last year, China committed another five billion dollars over the next few years on top of the 8 billion that it had already given to Cambodia. By not tying aid to meaningful political reform,   China has been able, at a minimum, to watch passively, and at the worst, to actively fuel, the proliferation of corruption and crony capitalism in Cambodia. It is important that in the face of post-election violence, China has been calling for peace.  But China is also calling for an improbable coalition between the government and the opposition while at the same time hailing the election as a “victory” for the ruling party. While China’s strategies to strengthen connections with countries of the ASEAN have been successful, they have sometimes come at the cost of freedoms and long term stability in those countries. A broken and dysfunctional Cambodian government will be more troublesome for China than one where the opposition has been given the chance to gain legitimate ground. China needs to rethink its policy of giving blank-checks to failing regimes if it wants to build on its solid connections in Asia.

Akshan de Alwis is a Senior at the Noble and Greenough School and works with youth groups in Burma. 

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