Since last week’s Hague ruling, Beijing has been busy trying to shore up international support and the results have been mixed. Nevertheless, their efforts are bearing fruit in Phnom Penh, Voice of America reports:
Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced that China will give Cambodia almost $600 million in aid to support election infrastructure, education and health projects — with a catch.
Sen’s Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, agreed to accommodate Cambodia’s aid request during the 11th biennial Asia-Europe Meeting, held this past week in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. China, a key ally of Cambodia and the Southeast Asian country’s largest donor, in return expects support in international forums, including in discussions over the future of the South China Sea.
At first glance, the financing seems a little hefty for a little diplomatic lip service. But the cash fits in the context of a broader Sino-Cambodian relationship. Following less-than-friendly relations during the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation periods, China has been a key partner to Cambodia. Cambodia has an influential ethnic Chinese community and has faced international isolation following the 1997 coup by current President Hun Sen. Back in 2006, China provided a similar $600 million aid and loan package to Cambodia for infrastructure development. Renewing that promise makes sense now: with Burma leaning away, Malaysia being somewhat less neutral, and Thailand‘s allegiances still unclear, keeping Cambodia close helps ensure ASEAN remains divided.
Cambodia has straddled the line but resisted crossing into Chinese client status. Since 1992, Cambodia has attracted $1.2 billion in Japanese overseas development aid. Recently, Phnom Penh floated infrastructure investment plans with India.
Having gotten his first start as foreign minister at the age of twenty-seven, President Hun Sen has long been an active participant in Cambodia’s efforts to hedge against Chinese influence. After being criticized for advancing China’s position on the South China Sea, particularly in 2012, when Cambodia was ASEAN chair and ‘failed’ to lead a unified front, Hun Sen emphasized “Cambodian foreign policy is not aimed at isolating the country from potential allies…it’s not necessary to reveal a nation’s foreign policy”. He has made significant efforts to “pacify” resentment within ASEAN. During visits to Vietnam, he noted the Vietnamese contribution to the 1979 liberation and made a point of highlighting his personal biography—Hun Sen spent years living as a dissident in Vietnam (he speaks Vietnamese). The U.S. has been less friendly since 1997 due to human rights concerns, but Hun Sen met with John Kerry to discuss Asia’s various territorial conflicts and in the meeting he expressed neutrality and support for negotiations between individual parties.
However, it is difficult to deny that China has been relatively effective, despite the competition, in buying Cambodian “soft alignment”. This new installment of $600 million will help keep the arrangement intact.