Cambodia’s election season has officially kicked off with votes scheduled to be cast nationwide on the 29th of July. Long serving Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party are widely expected to sweep elections that are being logistically supported by China while months ago the US withdrew its “aid” to the ASEAN state due to Washington’s anger that pro-American opposition parties had been disqualified by the Cambodian authorities.
Today, Cambodia’s growing economy is led by a man who is perhaps an unlikely candidate to be a Chinese partner even though recent years have brought Hun Sen ever closer to Beijing than ever before. Hun Sen began his military career with the Chinese backed (and also covertly US backed) Khmer Rouge before switching allegiances to pro-Vietnamese Soviet backed forces in 1977.
After the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, Hun Sen was rewarded for his loyalty to Hanoi by being appointed acting Prime Minister in 1984 before consolidating his office in 1985. Since then Hun Sen has been the head of government in Cambodia and remains so till this day.
During the 1980s the United States continued to recognise the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea government in exile led by the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia even though the end of the Cold War saw the US reconciling itself to Hun Sen’s government. Since the 1990s and into the 21st century, both the US and China have engaged in growing economic and diplomatic relations with Hun Sen’s government owing to the shift in geopolitical dynamics in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia since the collapse of the USSR.
In recent years however, Cambodia has grown ever closer to China with Hun Sen and Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoying a good personal friendship which has translated into increased investment into Cambodia form Beijing. While Washington’s decision to cut off investment in the form of so-called “aid” to Cambodia was proximately blamed on moves against US backed parties, in reality, the US has temporarily bowed out of Cambodia owing to the fact that Phnom Penh has made a clear choice indicating a preference for Beijing’s One Belt–One Road connectivity projects in the region over joining Washington’s new allies including neighbouring Vietnam. Because of this, the likelihood of the US utilising post-election hybrid war techniques to try and destabilise Cambodia remains something that Hun Sen must beware of. In this area too, a strong Chinese partnership remains the best and least restrictive geopolitical insurance policy against possible US political meddling.
In this sense, Hun Sen has defied his personal history in overtly positioning his country towards a Chinese partnership that will necessarily reduce the always controversial Vietnamese presence in Cambodia. In this sense, the forthcoming elections serve as a public vote of confidence in Hun Sen’s policies which have seen the once woefully economically depressed ASEAN member elevate its material position through growing trade partnerships.
At present, the US remains the number one destination for Cambodian products and raw materials while Chinese products are the second most imported into Cambodia after neighbouring Thailand. This trade balance could however shift in the near future as China begins to rapidly open its large internal market to trade both from major industrial exporters and developing economies like Cambodia. Even regional Chinese rival Vietnam recently saw China become its number one trading partner in terms of exports- overtaking the United States in the process.
China’s position being Vietnam’s top destination for exports may seem contradictory given the fact that Hanoi is now Beijing’s primary antagonist over South China Sea issues, although this fact is tempered by recent moves from Vietnam to engage in more meaningful dialogue with China. Likewise, Vietnam’s partnership with Russia to drill for oil in the contested South China Sea may on cursory appearances indicate that Russia is taking the side of its Cold War partner against its new superpower partner in the form of China. In reality though, Russia’s involvement with Vietnam could help push Hanoi and Beijing back to the negotiation table and thus Russia’s influence in the region as a contemporary partner of both Vietnam and China has more positive implications than negative ones.
For Cambodia, a Chinese partnership not only represents a golden opportunity to take advantage of Belt and Road connectivity that is the most assured way to create further sustainable development in the country, but it is also a means to leverage its historically weak position vis-a-vis Vietnam. At a time when all-weather Russo-Vietnamese ties could help to ease tensions between Hanoi and Beijing, Hun Sen’s policy of expanding relations with China could ultimately help to create a wider Indochinese trade corridor which could provide yet another alternative for China’s westward trade movements to the Strait of Malacca. Such a route south to Cambodia could then be integrated into the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that is once again on the right track after Chinese drafted peace proposals have helped ease the Rakhine State conflict involving both Myanmar and Bangladesh. In this sense, Cambodian goods could more easily flow both north east into China and north west into the Indian Ocean via Myanmar in a future trading road for the northern regions of south east Asia.
Taken in totality, while the growth of a wider Indochinese trade corridor of which Cambodia could play an important role is a matter for future years, Hun Sen’s leadership continues to keep the best and most plentiful options open for Cambodia. The forthcoming election looks to solidify these trends for the foreseeable future.