By: Michele Penna

It has become an article of faith that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been able to belittle western donors, challenge the US to suspend aid and claim that doing so would only damage those who serve American interests because of the deep and growing involvement of China in Cambodia’s economy.

But just how deep that involvement is is shown by the numbers. Despite the continuing largesse from the United Nations and western NGOs with a residual guilt complex over the horrendous 1970s reign of the Khmer Rouge, Chinese foreign direct investment accounted for 44 percent of the $19.2 billion flowing into the country between 1994 and 2014, making the People’s Republic Cambodia’s largest investor.  More than a third of the US$732 million of bilateral aid to Cambodia in 2016 came from China.

Accordingly, after the prime minister denounced western donors, within two weeks the prime minister was in Beijing, reportedly asking for more financial support.

From Phnom Penh’s perspective, there are significant perks to currying China’s favor. Besides spurring growth, Chinese companies help diversify the economy away from traditional backers such as Vietnam, whose influence many Cambodians dread. Furthermore, Chinese money comes with no righteous lecturing attached, as Beijing is fond of presenting itself as an alternative to western arrogance.

China’s largesse has paid off for Beijing as well, with Cambodia a reliable ally in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, particularly in China’s insistence on its so-called nine-dash line giving it claim to virtually the entire South China Sea despite a landmark Law of the Sea ruling that it has no such claim. Cambodia blocked any mention of the international court ruling in 2016, preventing ASEAN from issung an annual statement for only the second time in the organization’s 50-year history.   

With eight months to go before the next national electons, this has been instrumental in allowing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to manipulate domestic politics, particularly after a contested national election in 2013, which had the CPP contemplating the possibility of defeat to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) at the ballot box.

To prevent this, the authorities have since launched a series of crackdowns on opposition forces, secure in the knowledge that its sugar daddy to the north won’t complain. First came the reactivation of a lawsuit against Sam Rainsy, the then-president of the CNRP, now in exile. Then judges started moving against Kem Sokha, who had taken the helm of the party in Rainsy’s absence. This did not do much to allay the CPP’s fears, as communal elections in June showed the party was still hemorrhaging support. Thanks to laws approved specifically for this purpose, the CNRP was then disbanded, delivering a likely victory for the incumbent administration at next year’s elections.

The ongoing repression has invited harsh comments from multiple corners, be it US senators, human rights groups or European authorities. But notably not from China. The murder of Kem Ley, a famed political activist gunned down in mysterious circumstances last year, prompted no reaction. Shutting down the Cambodia Daily, the main English language newspaper in the country, hardly had Chinese leaders huffing and puffing.

The latter have actually shielded Cambodia from international criticism, echoing Hun Sen’s line that the government is threatened by instability, one of Beijing’s own bogeymen. ‘China supports the Cambodian side’s efforts to protect political stability and achieve economic development, and believes the Cambodian government can lead the people to deal with domestic and foreign challenges, and will smoothly hold elections next year,’ recently stated Chinese Foreign Ministry Wang Yi. Last week, President Xi Jinping himself praised Hun Sen as a ‘good friend, old friend and true friend.’

Aware of such backing, Hun Sen has played the China card with gusto. Back in 2013, when for a change western governments were threatening to slash aid, he was heard saying that eventual cuts “won’t affect the government.” The last time they cut aid, he added, “they were going to give us 100 old trucks. The Chinese saw this and gave us 257 trucks.’

Beijing’s growing power – in 2016, China provided almost 30 percent of total investment capital in the country, more than Cambodian themselves – helps explain why there has been little reaction to the fact that Cambodia is now virtually a one-party state. Donors have warned of retaliation, but no serious threat has so far materialized, since the government has a reliable alternative should donors feel choosy about their politics.

“China has not created authoritarianism in Cambodia. It has simply given Hun Sen the freedom to do what he was doing already but more openly,” concluded Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

The country has always been a skin-thin democracy, where elections were permitted because those at the top of the political pyramid knew their positions wouldn’t be threatened. Some think a strong reaction from donor countries would send Phnom Penh panicking, but this is not quite certain. “Sanctions would reinforce the idea that the West wants to overthrow them,” Strangio said, adding that it would take a good measure of hypocrisy to gang up on Cambodia while western nations happily do business with nearby countries that are established one-party systems.

‘You cannot force one to adopt a democratic ideal. This is why the mirage of democracy exists in Cambodia. It is an adaptation to foreign pressure, giving outsiders what they want to see,’ he said.

And so, barring a popular uprising, the Prime Minister who has ruled Cambodia for over three decades might have his way again. The opposition lies in tatters, with a CNRP lawmaker claiming about half of her party’s members in Parliament have fled the country. Phnom Penh’s ties to China are excellent, and those with the rest of the world have not sunk either.

It remains to be seen whether Hun Sen will see fit to loosen the screws before next year’s national vote. He did so after crackdowns past and might see value in doing so once again, allowing everyone to save face. Ever the foxy politician, he certainly knows that being alone with Beijing can be uncomfortable. After all, it was not so long ago – in 1988 – that he singled China out as the “root of everything that is evil” in Cambodia.