Cambodia Update


November 13, 2018

Cambodia Update

Image result for Cambodia's Hun Sen

 

by Dr. Katrin Travouillon

http://www.newmandala.org/where-in-the-world-is-cambodia/

The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in 2015 escaping political charges. Two years later, party president Kem Sokha was jailed on treason charges. Rainsy has since made it his mission to create a sense of urgency among the world’s leaders to intervene in Cambodia lest democracy come to an end.

Image result for Cambodia's Hun Sen

Yet hundreds of fundraisers, editorials, speeches, rallies, and handshakes with foreign dignitaries and supporters in Europe, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia did not prevent the inevitable. Cambodia’s parliamentary elections in July 2018 went through as planned: without Rainsy, without Sokha, without the CNRP, and thus without any substantial opposition to perpetual Prime Minister Hun Sen. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept all available seats. With the CNRP dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in late 2017, 19 hitherto-marginal parties were the only remaining alternatives; these parties won no seats.

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Even casual observers of Cambodian politics are aware of the pivotal role the 1991 Paris Peace Accords play in the opposition’s attempts to call foreign actors to action. Over the past two decades, the PPA consistently provided Rainsy and his fellow opposition members with a script to claim a special relationship—a common destiny, even—that binds Cambodia to the rest of the “developed, democratic” world.

In this narrative, the designers and signatories of the PPA are morally, possibly even legally, obliged to protect their legacy and the political system it created. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) implemented the agreements and organised the first nationwide democratic elections in 1993.

To a certain degree, Rainsy’s key audience—the international community—seems amenable to these demands. Hun Sen’s 2017–18 crackdown on the CNRP, the independent media and civil society all drew swift condemnation from international leaders and their organisations. Financial and technical support for the election was withdrawn by the US and the EU as well as Japan, followed by threats to take further action should his government not reverse course.

Image result for Cambodia's Hun Sen

Rainsy’s forced absence from Cambodia has thus only strengthened the symbiotic relationship between the opposition leader and the so-called international community: whenever it becomes obvious how little substantial influence they have on the design and direction of Cambodia’s political system they turn to each other for reassurance that they are relevant, powerful, and on the right side of history.

To many international observers, the vision conveyed in the exchanges is certainly appealing: it is that of a shared agenda and a strong, progressive political partnership on behalf of the Cambodian people. This is all the more so at a moment of democratic decline in the region, coinciding with an identity crisis of the West.

However, it is also problematic to turn to these public expressions of mutual affection in an attempt to get a sense for the ideas and motivations of those Cambodian political actors that remain committed to the country’s formal political institutions.

A narrative of suspicion

In a series of interviews I conducted in the two weeks prior to the election in July 2018, the leaders of five of the participating non-CPP parties expressed their thoughts on the barrage of international statements, threats, and promises directed at Cambodia and its leaders in an attempt to convince Hun Sen to let the CNRP participate.

Those parties’ interests and motivations are under considerable scrutiny: Pich Sros had supported the dismantling of the CNRP, and his Cambodian Youth Party(CYP) briefly benefited from the subsequent distribution of the CNRP’s parliamentary seats. The Khmer National Unity Party’s (KNUP) Bun Chhay had been released from prison just in time for the elections. As for those parties considered to be more authentically interested in advancing democracy in Cambodia? “Sam Rainsy is defaming us abroad,” Sam Inn from the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) said matter-of-factly, “says that we are puppets of Hun Sen”. And Kong Monika, son of a former CNRP member and leader of the Khmer Will Party, likewise conceded that many see him as a “traitor”.

Many critics of the remaining non-CPP parties saw their suspicions confirmed when leaders of almost all competing parties decided to join Hun Sen’s Supreme Consultative Council  after the CPP’s victory, in exchange for the honorific title of Ek Udom (Excellency) and a government salary (of those interviewed, only the Grassroots Democracy Party and League for Democracy Party declined).

It goes without saying that the timing of the interviews and their role as party leaders effectively obliged all speakers to defend the value of the electoral process against critical domestic and international commentators.

In this regard it is easy to see why many will dismiss these voices as the irrelevant thoughts of an irrelevant elite. After all, they decided to participate in the sham elections, providing legitimacy to a process that only served to further facilitate Cambodia’s “descent into outright dictatorship”.

Yet with every day that passes since the election, the tensions this conflict created become less and less important. More importantly, there is the fact that the interviewed actors, regardless of their proximity or distance to the government of Hun Sen, consistently drew on similar narratives and themes when presenting their views of Cambodia’s relation to the international actors that are perceived to have an interest in their country.

These consistencies (in substance, not style) are further corroborated by the debates as they play out on social media and by a series of interviews that Julie Bernath and I conducted with Cambodian political activists, advisors, and civil society leaders in 2017 and 2018.

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Taken together, they draw attention to the factors that determine the space and the scales that Cambodia’s politicians (including Hun Sen) use to situate their policies vis-à-vis foreign countries. In the amicable exchanges, that purport to draw solely on the spirit of the PPA when constructing transnational political alliances on behalf of the Cambodian people, these determinants are often hidden, downplayed, or ignored.

Chief among those recurring motives in the pre-election interviews was a tendency to view the international community as partisan, biased and acting on behalf of the CNRP.

Domestically, the repeated discursive interventions by foreign actors and their demands to reinstate the CNRP have thus contributed to revive the use of the politically loaded distinctions between Khmer “inside” and “outside” of the country. When conflicts ravaged the country in the 1960s and 1970s, knowledge about the whereabouts of a person became deeply entangled with perceived political affiliations as different factions used different provinces and border camps to recruit and train their followers, while others fled the country. Former refugees who returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s to support Cambodia’s liberal reforms were not always received with open arms. Instead, many envied and resented them for the opportunities they had abroad, while those “inside of the country” suffered. Now, Kong Monika deemed Rainsy’s call for an election boycott a bad strategy because “it will cause hardship for the people inside the country, [he] is outside … he won’t have security problems, he is safe.”

The party representatives reacted equally dismissively to the EU’s threat to withdraw trade preferences, which have been the bedrock of Cambodia’s garment-export economy. The EU recently announced that Cambodia may indeed be cut off from the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.

Such measures, this was the general assessment “won’t affect the people in power, it won’t affect the opposition leaders either. [It] will have an impact, it will affect Cambodia, but who will affect the most? The innocent people,” said Kong Monika.

Or, in a slightly more dramatic fashion, Pich Sros declared that “the people who will die first aren’t Hun Sen or Sam Rainsy”. Aware of the potential ramifications this strategy may have for him, Rainsy told “all factory workers” that “when sanctions are mounted against Hun Sen and his regime by the international community, it will not be the CNRP that is to blame. [It is] Hun Sen, because he undermines democracy and abuses human rights.”

The question here is if their economically precarious situation leaves the affected people any chance to appreciate whatever long-term game it is that political leaders are playing when these measures begin to negatively affect their livelihoods.

Moral superiority and hierarchies

On the ground, the constant criticism of Cambodia as “undemocratic” can also feed into a sense of resentment against the paternalism of distant observers. Unlike Japan, which was held up by the political figures as a model because it simply “helps Cambodia as a poor country” Western actors are often viewed to possess a false sense of moral superiority. Those speaking out in the name of the international community did of course expressly condemn the country’s ruling elite, yet, many do not take kindly to the hierarchies between Cambodia and other countries that such criticism establishes. In Prich Sros’ words:

“So international observers criticise Cambodia for being undemocratic. Undemocratic according to what standard? [What about] the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam? The US is close to all of them! Why are they not threatening to end business with Thailand? Why is the US not applying any pressure to Thailand? […] Which standard are they using? Frankly, I haven’t seen it anywhere in this world, this ‘democracy’.”

And then there are the lessons learned from the country’s recent history of wars and conflicts. Foreign actors fanned the flames in all of them:

“Because we have learned from experiences that whenever we Khmer, when our country became dependent on one great power we were not at peace; before, during the Lon Nol period, we became solely dependent on the US and fought against communism, then later on, we became dependent on China and fought against the US. Every time we become dependent on a great power we are not at peace.” (Sam Inn)

These more recent experiences feed into a collective memory already profoundly shaped by images of shifting borders and territorial losses. As a result, it is an ambivalent mix of anxiety and pragmatism that feeds into politicians’ assessments of foreign actors’ motivations to cooperate and engage with a country like Cambodia.

Its neighbours? They are still overwhelmingly viewed with deep-seated suspicion by my interviewees. The border dispute with Thailand over Preah Vihear is still fresh on people’s minds and reports over documented “encroachment” from Vietnam—considered to be driven predominantly by its intention to “swallow” its neighbours—routinely serve to stir up the public.

China? It is mostly driven by self-interest in the party leaders’ eyes. It is seen to benefit from Cambodia through strategic investments and exploitative business practices:

“There are many Vietnamese and Chinese factories and the government is giving out land concessions and a lot of business to these factories. And all those factories do not have to do anything. They cut the trees, cut the trees and sell them. They mine, mine and destroy the Cambodian resources but they aren’t creating any work for Cambodians in this context.” (Kong Moncia)

Chinese support for the elections in July was thus not framed as an attempt to create a new one-party state in its image, but as a calculated move to stabilise its strategic position.

And the “international community”?

The predominant identity accorded to Cambodia as a country and nation in their interactions with representatives of the Western countries is that of an “aid” recipient.

In an attempt to capture the general sentiment that was expressed during these interviews and those jointly conducted with Bernath, the American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s observation about “gratitude” comes to mind: it contains not only a sense of appreciation, but likewise a sense of indebtedness. As such, the long and often heavy-handed involvement of donor countries has also given rise to notions of unease or even resentment. In the words of the LDP’s Kem Veasna:

“There are three groups of people that pretend to be generous: one, politicians; two, religious people; and three … the civil society […] They do this for a salary. […] I talk about this a lot in public forums. I am against the international community.”

In this regard, Monika’s statement reads like a final stroke under the views expressed by all interviewed politicians:

“I think that there is a political deadlock in Cambodia today that can only be overcome by a dialogue between Khmer and Khmer. We cannot always rely on foreigners for help … we have seen historically that, asking this side for help or that side for help … those who are the victims [of this strategy] are the Cambodian people.”

A new rhetoric

The Cambodian people harbour no illusions when it comes to the intentions of anyone “elected” to power to act in their interest. A few days prior to casting her ballot, a teacher summarised her expectations with a Khmer proverb that loosely translates to: “before the election they court you, after the election is won, they club you”.

And while such criticism is mostly aimed at the government, it also becomes increasingly difficult to speak of Cambodia’s opposition parties without putting the very term in ironic quotation marks. Yet, those actors and institutions that should have a vital interest in facilitating a constructive dialogue between Cambodians—among them ASEAN and the politically active diasporas in the US and Australia—should still take note of all areas of contention and dissent that were mapped out here.

The anxieties, concerns, and resentments expressed here are sparked by others’ perceived interest in their territory, their resources, but also the tensions caused by what Berit Blieseman and Florian Kühn referred to as the paradox of the international community (likewise, a concept that deserves its quotation marks): it is possible to morally exclude Hun Sen and his government from the international community, yet, structurally Cambodia—the country and its people—will remain part of it.

Many remain committed to the vision of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. Yet, the exiled opposition needs to find ways to evoke its principles without waving the paper. This decade-long practice has closely associated the PPA with partisan, not universal, claims. As a result, international alliances forged in its name cannot rely on their good intentions. Instead, the ”international community” needs to evaluate to what extent they need a domestic political constituency able and willing to support the rationale for their interventions.

In the absence of such voices, and the government’s near monopoly on the media, can blunt measures like the proposed EU sanctions—with their simultaneously vague and extensive goals—really succeed, or are they more likely to lead to the type of “perverse effects” observed elsewhere?

Considering the Prime Minister’s firm control over Cambodia’s political and economic institutions and his proven ability to exploit the tension caused by conflicts and disputes in all those three areas, a thorough review of democracy promoters’ rhetoric and strategy might well be overdue.


The interviews referenced in this article were conducted in the context of an ongoing joint research project with Dr. Julie Bernath on the political uses and abuses of the “international community” in Cambodia since 1991.

Hun Sen’s Power Paradox


November 9, 2018

Hun Sen’s Power Paradox

by Dr. Sorpong Peou, Ryerson University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/11/07/hun-sens-power-paradox/

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is continuing to push the limits of personal power consolidation. While his strategies have been highly successful so far, they are likely to result in greater political insecurity in Cambodia.

Several concerning developments have emerged in 2018. Since the Supreme Court banned the main opposition party — the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP — in November 2017, Hun Sen has further consolidated his power by appointing family members to top government positions.

Some of these promotions were of his children. For instance, in late 2017 Hun Sen appointed his third son, Hun Manith, as General Director of the General Directorate of Intelligence, a new intelligence unit designed to train spies for combat against terrorists and any suspected threat from ‘revolutionary’ forces. Hun Sen also promoted his son-in-law, Dy Vichea — former head of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Department — to Deputy Chief of the National Police. Most importantly, Hun Sen elevated his eldest son Lieutenant General Hun Manet (pic below) as a General (four star) following his promotion to Deputy Commander in Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

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These tactical moves are part of the Prime Minister’s long-term strategy to consolidate power, which has been in place since he removed his then co-prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, from power in July 1997. Hun Sen has used coercive means to tighten political control over state institutions and co-opt loyal followers. Hun Sen now maintains tight control over the judiciary and electoral processes at both the local and national level and his party, the Cambodian People Party (CPP), dominates the bicameral legislature.

Why has Hun Sen carried out these tactical moves? For some commentators, they are simply a part of Cambodia’s entrenched political culture of authoritarianism, nepotism and patrimonialism.

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While there is some truth to this way of looking at Cambodian politics, it overlooks Cambodian leaders’ deep sense of insecurity, which drives them to weaken opposition forces by all means necessary. Hun Sen has been comparatively more successful than past Cambodian leaders in consolidating power, and is continuing to expand his domination of Cambodian politics after more than three decades.

Despite this success, Hun Sen still appears to feel insecure. His efforts to fill top government positions with family members are not simply about building a family business empire but rather about shutting down potential threats from within and without. This may explain why Hun Sen maintains a bodyguard unit of up to 6000 well-equipped and highly-paid troops.

Hun Sen’s sense of political vulnerability is also reflected in the words of Hun Manith, who reportedly said that the new General Directorate of Intelligence was designed to deal with ‘internal and external disturbance from a hostile and ill-intended group of people’ and that ‘the political and security situation and competition in the future will be more intense than in previous years’.

But Hun Sen is making the same mistake of the many Cambodian leaders before him: maximising political security by endlessly consolidating power. Hun Sen appears to believe that this strategy will continue to work for him. The problem with this strategy, though, may emerge from Cambodia’s external environment.

Hun Sen has taken advantage of the post-Cold War peace dividend and is also enjoying growing support from China. But he runs the risk of over-relying on Beijing’s support. The extent to which China is prepared to protect the CPP is difficult to determine, but what is clear is Chinese leaders’ long history of abandoning their allies when much was at stake. While Hun Sen may be aware of this possibility, his strategy to weaken domestic political challenges may increase his political insecurity.

Another problem with power consolidation through nepotism or patrimonialism is that it tends to invite resistance and opposition from both within the party and without. At some point, forces opposed to Hun Sen will grow stronger and nastier, especially if an economic downturn hits the country. And if Western democracies begin to impose sanctions on Cambodia, not only will ordinary Cambodians suffer, but the ruling elite will also face a legitimacy crisis. In this scenario, the CPP is likely to resort to even more repressive violence and may even end up self-imploding.

Current and future Cambodian leaders need to realise that security maximisation through unrestrained power consolidation is counterproductive and dangerous. Security does not necessarily result from others’ insecurity. But for this to happen would require CPP leaders to shift from a self-serving strategy to one that considers the security of others through effective dialogue and democratic power sharing.

Dr. Sorpong Peou is a Professor with the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto

Small states must play smart


October 5, 2018

Small states must play smart

by Chheang Vannarith

Cambodia Flag
“Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.”– Chheang Vannarith

The foreign policy of small states is constrained by the size and location of the country and its natural resources and population. Small states are more vulnerable to external changes and shocks, the level of dependency on external sources for security and development, and the perception of their national roles.

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Size does matter for small states. They find it difficult to have favourable foreign policy outcomes than larger nations. To make up for this, small states tend to focus on their immediate geographic area and economic diplomacy, with an emphasis on international rules and norms, while promoting multilateralism and international cooperation.

The primary objective of small states is to ensure their survival and strengthen their position and relevance in a fluid or even anarchic international system. The fast-evolving international system together with global power shifts is posing more challenges for small states to adjust and realise their foreign policy objective. Hence they must play smart and be innovative in order to achieve their foreign policy goals.

Cambodia is thriving to stay relevant in the international system through the implementation of a dual-track diplomacy: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Recently, Cambodia has taken a relatively proactive approach in strengthening multilateralism and a rules-based international order as these two norms are under stress and threat caused by unilateralism and protectionism. The US retreat from multilateral institutions has caused severe disruptions and turbulence in the international liberal order.

Cambodia’s foreign policy is at a critical juncture as the country remains at the frontline of geopolitical rivalry in the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. Geopolitical risks are heightening as major powers are vying to create their own sphere of influence in the region. The Kingdom is very much vulnerable to becoming a pawn of major power politics if foreign policy is not managed carefully. The evolving geopolitical dynamics thus demands that Cambodian leaders be more adaptive, flexible, resilient, and pragmatic.

As geopolitical risks and vulnerabilities rise further, Cambodia’s foreign policy options could be more constrained. The strategic space for Cambodia to manoeuver is getting narrower. Once geopolitical power rivalry becomes clear-cut and all-out, Cambodia could lose its balance and would be structurally forced to hop on the bandwagon of a major power for its survival.

At the moment, Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.

Hedging is the best strategic option for Cambodia, especially in dealing with uncertainty. However, implementing this strategy is a huge challenge. It requires strategic articulation on certain issues and strategic ambiguity on others. Even sometimes it requires to have contradictory views on certain issues but it must be implemented smartly in order not to lose trust with any major power.

The key challenge now for Cambodia is how it could gain trust from all major powers. At the moment, Cambodia’s relations with the US faces a serious trust deficit. It is urgent that Cambodia and the US find common grounds and explore innovative pathways to restore trust and normalize their bilateral relationship.

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Economic pragmatism, strategic diversification, a denial to a regional hegemonic power, and regime legitimization are the key components of a hedging strategy. ASEAN as a regional grouping is an important shield for Cambodia and the group’s other members to neutralize and cushion the adverse effects created by rivalry between the major powers.

Yet ASEAN faces the risk of being marginalized by two competing institutional frameworks – China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-initiated Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Unless ASEAN member states are able to stay united and forge a common foreign policy position, they risk becoming the proxy states of major powers. Consequently, the region will be divided into two diametric poles: the pro-China camp versus the pro-US camp.

To avert these risks, ASEAN must be more innovative and adopt a bolder approach to protect common regional interests. Just playing it safe and keeping a low profile is not a solution. ASEAN must be bold enough to stand up against any major power that intends to build its hegemonic dominence in the region at the expense of the core interests of its member countries.

Cambodia is of the view that ASEAN driven multilateral institutions and mechanisms play a critical role in constructing an open and inclusive regional order that can accommodate all major powers. ASEAN is widely regarded as the main vehicle for its members to engage and integrate major powers, and hopefully shape the behaviour of major powers.

Engaging major powers is a viable strategic option for small states. Engagement is a means to integration. Small states like Cambodia can partially contribute to constructing an international order by engaging and integrating major powers into a rules-based international system and getting them to assume responsible leadership role in multilateral institutions.

Dr. Chheang Vannarith is a board member and Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy: to secure Cambodia’s place in a peaceful multilateral and interdependent world.


October 1, 2018

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy in a complex global geo-political landscape.

https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50537969/cambodias-worldview-2018/

Cambodia’s foreign policy has been robustly reformed after a leadership change in 2016. Over the past two years, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon and his team have taken concrete measures to enhance institutional capacity as well as to improve work-flow through the adoption and promotion of meritocracy, in which qualified officials have been spotted and promoted.

Although a foreign policy strategy is being articulated, Cambodia has at least been realistic and straight forward in its worldview and positions taken on some international issues. As a small state, Cambodia has taken a safe and smart approach towards sensitive geo-political issues to avoid being perceived as taking sides. But sometimes it also adopts a bold approach when core national interests are at stake.

Image result for hun sen win win policy

Win-Win  Policy for Peace at Home and Smart Partnerships Abroad for Prosperity in a multilateral and interdependent world.

Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen walked the extra mile to explain Cambodia’s bold position on domestic and international issues at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York. The statement highlighted core principles and objectives of Cambodia’s foreign policy amidst rising complexity and uncertainties in the global geopolitical landscape.

Firstly, Cambodia has been consistent in demanding that major powers respect the sovereignty and independence of weaker states by strictly adhering to the non-interference principle. Cambodian ruling elites are of the view that the “first-class” superpower – with obvious reference to the United States – has asserted its interventionist policy under the guise of universal values such as political freedom, democracy and human rights.

Prime Minister Hun Sen stated human rights is being used as “a mission to impose civilisation” upon other weaker states under the pretext of “the protection of political rights”. This is the strongest statement so far by a Cambodian leader at the UNGA concerning foreign intervention. It clearly shows that Cambodia will not be submissive to foreign pressure when it comes to the human rights agenda.

In well-crafted  remarks, he added, “big countries should not attempt to install their administrative system on other small countries, because those small countries also possess sovereignty and legitimate aspiration to maintain their own identities”.

It is historically proven that interventionism by superpowers cause conflicts and human suffering in different parts of the world. Small and weak states have been victims of the ambitions of major powers to build an unfair system to serve their selfish interests. The behaviour of some irresponsible major powers could be understood as in the Khmer proverb, “Burning other people’s houses just to boil their own eggs”. Learning the lessons from its own turbulent history, Cambodia now understands the consequences if it lets down its guard.

Other than being wary of foreign intervention, Cambodia is also against unilateralism and protectionism. US foreign policy has shifted from a dual track diplomacy of bilateralism and multilateralism towards unilateralism and bilateralism. Transactional international politics and protectionism being exercised by President Donald Trump and his team are triggering a full-fledged trade war, jeopardising international peace and development. If there is a Cold War 2.0 or World War III, the US would be held most accountable. Perhaps, it will lead to the end of the American century.

Unilateralism is the tool of superpowers to impose their views on other states in order to achieve their power projection agenda. “The imposition of unilateral sanctions has become a popular weapon of powerful nations in managing their international politics, which is completely driven by geopolitical agendas,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen, when addressing the UN.

 

Cambodia also called upon the international community to work together to oppose interventionism, unilateralism, and protectionism in order to save multilateralism and global governance. Small states must be bolder to stand up against the major powers and be counted. Cambodia for its part has taken a proactive approach in building a fair and just international system that serves the interests of both big and small countries.

Complex interdependence, from the Cambodian perspective, is the foundation of international peace and stability. Nation states must work together to deepen international cooperation and partnerships in order to effectively implement sustainable development goals as well as to resolve emerging global issues such as climate change, natural disasters, international terrorism, poverty, and armed conflicts.

Cambodia has grown rapidly because of good economic policies, combined with the return of peace after a tumultuous civil war, a conducive neighbourhood effect within ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Subregion and large inflows of foreign capital. As the country is integrated into the global economy, it has a strong interest in promoting a rules-based international order, which is something new for Cambodia’s foreign policy.

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Cambodian troops take an oath of allegiance in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 18, 2018. Cambodia sent the eighth batch of 184 peacekeepers to Lebanon to replace the seventh group, whose one-year United Nations peacekeeping mission in that country had come to an end. (Xinhua/Sovannara)

Cambodia has stressed the importance of international law and the “legitimacy of international legal order” although has not elaborated on what constitutes rules-based order and what Cambodia needs to do more to strengthen the order as such.

“Cambodia, as a small economy, believes in the interests of a rules-based international cooperation,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen.

There is an increasing concern that without the respect of international law and norms, global institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization will become less relevant in promoting peaceful settlement of disputes between countries. The US, which had led the international liberal order since the end of World War II, is now disrupting globalization and marginalizing global institutions.

Within the context of a zigzag trajectory of world politics, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy will focus on the promotion of multilateralism, interdependence, rules-based international order, and a fair and just global governance system.

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

Image result for Hun Sen-President Xi

As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.

 

 

Understanding Cambodia’s Foreign Policy


August 30, 2018

Understanding Cambodia’s Foreign Policy

by Chan Kunthiny
Image result for hun sen's engagement with China
Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Architect of Cambodia’s Win-Win Policy at Home and Abroad. This Policy has brought Peace, Stability and Prosperity since it was initiated in 1998

 

It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states, writes Chan Kunthiny.

Explaining Cambodia’s foreign policy through the prism of either “Sinicization” or “anti-Americanism” does not reflect the dynamics and complexity of Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy. These two conceptual approaches ignore the underlying dynamics of Cambodia’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

Image result for Sihanouk's Book My War with The CIA

Image result for William Shawcross book on Cambodia

The Trump Administration has yet to learn the Lessons of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Read King Norodom Sihanouk: My War with the CIA and William Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

 

To analyse any country’s foreign policy, one has to at least understand what constitutes the national interests of that country. As a small state, Cambodia defines its national interests based on the following four factors.

First, protecting territorial integrity. No foreign pundits have ever looked at Cambodia’s foreign policy behavior from this aspect. Cambodian people have a strong “victim mentality”— owing to the long history of foreign invasion and occupation following the fall of the Khmer Empire. The latest border skirmishes and tensions between Cambodia and its neighbors occurred in 2011 (with Thailand), 2015 (with Vietnam), and 2017 (with Laos).

Cambodia had exercised its utmost restraint and exerted diplomatic means to resolve the border tensions and disputes. This needs to be recognised.

Second, maintaining sovereignty and independence. For any small states, practicing the Westphalian system in reality is probably similar to Martin Luther King’s fight for the rights of black people despite the constitutional equality of all citizens. Small states face huge challenges in maintaining their sovereignty and independence as they are subject to coercion or invasion by more powerful nations.

From an outside-in perspective, small states tend to be willing to cede their sovereignty and independence in exchange for security protection or economic benefits. And from the inside-out perspective, there is a generalisation that superpowers are all the same in the way that they exert their power without respecting the interest of their weaker states.

Third, preserving peace and stability. This has been taken for granted by both outsiders and some insiders. The sad truth is that peace and stability that Cambodians have been enjoying since it gained total peace in 1998 is, in fact, the longest peace in Cambodian history after the collapse of the Khmer empire in 15th century.

As a post-conflict country, Cambodia remains vulnerable to political instability if strong leadership and institutions are not in place. Cambodia needs to keep nurturing the culture of peace, social harmony, and political dialogues.

Fourth, sustaining economic development. Cambodia has been quite successful in eradicating poverty – from absolute poverty in 1979, to a more than 50 percent poverty rate in the 1990s, and now to almost below 10 percent. This is a remarkable journey of development and nation building. It needs to be noted that after gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia had only one high school and the post-colonial Cambodia did not have a proper state apparatus to provide sufficient public services. Moreover, peace did not last long enough to allow state institutions to get reformed and strengthened.

The above four factors are all critical and intertwined. For example, even if internal peace and stability is so dearly important for Cambodia, it can never rule out the possibility of war if foreign powers interfere and violate Cambodian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Since the early 1980s, the Cambodian government has been domestically and internationally accused of being a “Vietnamese puppet” that allegedly ceded territory to its so-called master. However, the fact is even after nearly 40 years of border negotiation, both sides have not completed border demarcation. If Cambodia were a colony of Vietnam, the border demarcation would be completed in Vietnam’s favor, just like when the French colonial master decided everything on behalf of Cambodia.

Image result for hun sen's engagement with China

Constructive Engagement with China based on mutual respect and common interest

Another lingering perception is that Cambodia is willing to lose its sovereignty and independence just for the sake of material incentives provided by China. This is the theory of “Sinicization” of Cambodia. In its publication on July 19, the Nikkei Asian Review featured Cambodia in the front page with the title “Cambodia’s Chinafication”. In contrast, its latest article on August 24 entitled “Thailand rolls out red carpet for 500 Chinese companies” provided a softer tone of discrimination. It should be noted that despite Cambodia’s seemingly good relations with China, Cambodia has never had the opportunity to receive 500 Chinese companies in one single delegation.

Another important fact is that so far there is no case of any purchase of Cambodia’s public property and infrastructure by Chinese entities. It should be noted that all the deals are leasing contracts or BOTs (Build-Operate-Transfer). Moreover, in terms of risk of indebtedness, Cambodia is seen as being constantly aware and wary of the trend when it declined a loan offer from the China-controlled Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank in May 2017.

Concerning the relationship between “sovereignty and independence” and “economic development”, the futility of threat of sanctions and aid cut by some major powers to pressure a sovereign state to reverse its judicial verdicts is truly a type of neocolonialism that Cambodia has consistently rejected.

All the above four factors should be the analytical lens when one seeks to understand Cambodia’s foreign policy behaviours. The four factors are the barometers of Cambodia’s foreign policy towards other countries.

It is not accurate to just explain Cambodia’s foreign policy based on the perspective of major powers. They just serve the interests of self-serving writers who wish to draw international attention, amid the trendy thirst for stories, to the geopolitical superpower rivalry between the US and China at the cost of small states.

Cambodia will never kowtow to any major power. Cambodia has been and will be consistent in linking its foreign policy with peace, stability, territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence, and economic prosperity.

Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodia analyst based in Phnom Penh.