Cambodia, China’s closest ally in south-east Asia, looks to ‘reset ties’ with US
Singapore: Cambodia has indicated a desire to shift out of the shadow of Chinese patronage and pursue a closer relationship with the United States amid a landmark visit to Phnom Penh by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
Increasingly viewed as a vassal of China in its pursuit of regional hegemony, there are signs emerging of discomfort from within the one-party south-east Asian nation about its over-dependence on the superpower.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has made no apology for accepting Chinese investment. Credit:AP
The visit of Sherman, scheduled for Tuesday, coincided with a column from Cambodia’s state-owned news agency highlighted on social media by Prime Minister Hun Sen. It said it was “time for the US and Cambodia, in China’s shadow, to reset ties”.
At the same time, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh defended Beijing’s financial backing for the upgrading of its naval base in Sihanoukville, slamming claims China would in return be given priority access to the key strategic port on the Gulf of Thailand.
Sherman is on a regional tour that has already taken in Indonesia and includes a stop in Thailand but it is the visit to Cambodia that is most noteworthy in the context of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China.
“The fact that the US Deputy Secretary of State is visiting speaks volumes to Cambodia’s degree of discomfort at the position it has found itself in, in relation to China, its investments and China’s expectations arising from those investments in Cambodia,” said John Blaxland, professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Australian National University.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is on a regional tour of south-east Asia.Credit:Getty Images
“There are voices in the Cambodian government – they’re not very loud ones but they are reasonably influential – that are very uncomfortable with the degree to which Cambodia has become dependent on China.”
China has channelled billions into Cambodia in projects under its Belt and Road Initiative, most glaringly in coastal Sihanoukville, where dozens of casino developments for Chinese tourists shot up in recent years.
While there has been resentment at the influx of fly-in Chinese workers and the impact on Cambodian businesses, Phnom Penh has also been a beneficiary of China’s sponsorship during the pandemic. The country boasts the second-highest vaccination rate in south-east Asia, behind only Singapore. It uses Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for its population.
Even so, the noises being made about mending bridges with the US suggest Cambodia is seeking to find middle ground.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in April, 2019.Credit:Kyodo/AP
The issue for the US is how it can strengthen ties when it has been such a vocal critic of human rights abuses in Cambodia. The Hun Sen regime dissolved the main opposition party in the lead-up to the 2018 election and has placed nearly 150 party members on trial for treason and incitement.
Mu Sochua, vice-president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on Tuesday questioned whether charges of treason would be withdrawn against CNRP president Kem Sokha, who was accused of colluding with the Americans in a plot to overthrow Hun Sen four years ago. Last year, the US ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, labelled such alleged plots as “fabricated conspiracy theories”.
Blaxland, however, believes the Biden administration is playing a different tune to its predecessor.
“It’s not hammering Hun Sen at the moment over human rights or democracy issues. It’s just trying to engage,” Blaxland said.
He also suggested Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen, who has reportedly been groomed as his successor, as a potentially key figure in improving relations. A general in the Cambodian army, the 43-year-old is a graduate of US military academy West Point.
Cambodia’s Lieutenant General Hun Manet, foreground, a son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, smiles after receiving a COVID vaccine donated by China.Credit:AP
Another important factor is Cambodia taking over as chair of ASEAN next year. It was five years ago that Phnom Penh stood in the way of the regional bloc issuing a statement acknowledging an international court ruling that found China had no legal basis for its claim to most of the South China Sea.
Two new buildings have been built very quickly at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base.Credit:CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar.
China’s maritime ambitions have again been a hot topic this week. Beijing has helped pay for the redevelopment of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base following the dismantling US-funded facilities there last year and the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week published satellite images of two buildings it said had been rapidly built ahead of Sherman’s visit.
“The breakneck pace of construction at Ream, lack of transparency, and shifting explanations from Cambodian officials continue to fuel suspicions that the upgrades there are intended for China’s benefit as much as Cambodia’s,” AMTI reported.
Such a Chinese quid pro quo would be concerning to the US but Tea Banh, the defence minister, gave an interview with The Phnom Penh Post on the eve of Sherman’s arrival disputing that notion.
“It’s Cambodia who will use this [naval] base and it’s Cambodia who develops this land,” he said.
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