Jul 18, 2008
By Geoffrey Cain
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
PHNOM PENH – More than any other Southeast Asian country, Cambodia finds itself caught in the middle of competing United States and Chinese diplomatic overtures. With Washington offering bilateral strategic initiatives and Beijing rich financial assistance, Prime Minister Hun Sen has deftly balanced the country’s diplomacy between the two superpowers to his government’s political advantage.
In 2006, the US opened a massive new embassy in Phnom Penh, underscoring Washington’s new diplomatic commitment to the country. The facility includes office space for fighting global terrorism, including a large US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) presence and a new joint National Counterterrorism Committee, established in 2007.
FBI director Robert Mueller pointed to the fact that Jemaah Islamiyah operative Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, had taken refuge in a Cambodian Muslim school before his capture in Thailand in 2003 as one reason for setting up the new counterterrorism agency. US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli chimed in that unnamed radical Muslim groups were bidding to impose with funding a stricter interpretation of Islam on the local Muslim Cham community.
China, on the other hand, has deployed commercial resources to win influence. Since 2005, Beijing has offered up around US$600 million in annual economic aid, with funds earmarked for roads, bridges and dams. Unlike the previous aid received from Western donors – which in recent years accounted for over half of the country’s national budget – Chinese money comes with no pre-conditions that Hun Sen’s government fight graft or move towards more democracy.
In February this year, the Chinese government promised to help electrify Cambodia’s power-starved countryside, including a $1 billion commitment for two major dam projects. Those projects will alleviate chronic power shortages, which the World Bank says have led to the world’s highest energy costs.
The projects will also help power operations of the more than 3,000 Chinese companies now situated in Cambodia and which in 2007 produced US$1.56 billion in revenues, accounting for 7% of gross domestic product (GDP), according to Economic Institute of Cambodia statistics. China now employs a sizable proportion of the national workforce, supplanting the mostly Western non-governmental organizations and garment factories which dominated the local economy in the 1990s, when the country first emerged from decades of war.
Cambodia’s economy is expanding at double digit growth rates and China’s economic interest in the country has intensified since 2005, when US oil company Chevron discovered what some have projected are large stores of oil and gas off the country’s southern coast. Those growing commercial ties were witnessed in the establishment in February of a special economic zone at the coastal town of Sihanoukville, from which goods will be produced for export duty free to China.
At least six Chinese companies have so far signed contracts with the zone’s two Chinese and Cambodian developers. Once a second phase of construction is completed in 2011, the Sihanoukville zone will have the capacity to accommodate 150 companies and 40,000 workers. The Chinese developers hope the zone will export $2 billion worth of products per year by 2015, according a joint press release.
Hun Sen attended the SEZ’s launch and noted after signing an official agreement with the project’s developers that the new facility would stoke growth in the Cambodian economy and strengthen bilateral ties with China. Beijing has donated nine patrol boats to the Royal Khmer Navy to help secure the new facility against piracy and trafficking.
While China’s economic influence grows, that of the US is on the wane. In recent years the US has given around $150 million in annual economic aid, a small fraction of China’s commercial patronage. At the same time US-Cambodian trade ties have fallen off, seen in the 30% year-on-year decline in garment exports to the US in 2007. The US has long been the primary importer of Cambodian textiles, which is still the country’s largest export item.
By offering more aid through strategic initiatives, the US policy towards Cambodia has apparently shifted after emphasizing throughout the 1990s the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. That frequently put the two sides at diplomatic loggerheads, notably over an FBI investigation into a March 1997 bomb attack against a rally held by opposition politician Sam Rainsy in the capital Phnom Penh which killed at least 16 and injured 150 people, including a US citizen.
According to a Washington Post story from June 1997, which quoted four US government sources with access to classified material, the FBI had tentatively pinned responsibility for the blasts and subsequent interference in their investigations on Hun Sen’s personal Brigade 70 bodyguard unit. The US has never publicly released the investigation’s findings, although US-based Human Rights Watch earlier this year called upon Washington to re-open its long-stalled investigations. “Instead of trying to protect US relations with Cambodia, it should now finish what it started,” the rights group said in a statement.
Instead, the US State Department claimed in a recent report on trafficking in people that the human rights situation in Cambodia is improving under Hun Sen’s watch. It praised in particular his government’s efforts to combat human trafficking. More controversially, the FBI in April last year invited national police chief Hok Lundy to Las Vegas for discussions on counterterrorism, even though Lundy has been implicated in a number of serious human rights abuses.
According to Human Rights Watch, which said it has presented its own evidence to the US government, Lundy was part of the conspiracy that carried out the 1997 grenade attack, an act the FBI had previously classified as a “terrorist act”. He also commanded battalions loyal to Hun Sen that carried out the July 1997 coup that ousted co-prime minister Norodom Ranariddh, where some opposition party members and supporters were killed in extrajudicial fashion and many more fled into exile.
Last week’s murder of a Sam Rainsy Party-aligned journalist, Khem Sambo, also raises questions about possible government actions in the run-up to general elections scheduled for July 27. Former co-prime minister and now the leader of a political party under his own name, Norodom Rannaridh, recently sought refuge in Malaysia after the government leveled defamation charges against him.
The US’s upbeat assessment of Cambodia’s human rights record may be seen as a diplomatic response to China’s more unconditional and commercial approach to bilateral relations. There is also the historical guilt factor, shared by both the US and China, and a major complication in winning over Hun Sen’s trust. Beijing famously backed the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, both while the radical Maoists were in power from 1975-79 and after they were overthrown by Vietnamese forces in 1979 and took up guerilla arms around the Thai border.
The genocidal regime is now held responsible for the deaths of as many as 2 million Cambodians, including ethnic Chinese businessmen. Meanwhile, the US is estimated to have killed over 500,000 Cambodians during its secret bombing campaign from 1969 to 1970, which intensified the country’s civil war. The US also backed the 1970 Lon Nol-led coup which deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk as head of state.
Some estimate China now has the upper hand over the US in terms of relations with Cambodia. While Hun Sen welcomes US counterterrorism initiatives, which will likely go a long way in improving the government’s surveillance capabilities, the premier’s statements about the actual risk of terrorism to Cambodia have been conflicting.
After a foiled bomb attack of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in July 2007 by a group of local radicals, Hun Sen asserted his government’s will to combat terrorism. But by February 2008,
he apparently flip-flopped his position by saying that there were no terrorists in Cambodia.
More clearly, Hun Sen’s cooperation on US counterterrorism initiatives is subordinated to his government’s drive to promote more Chinese trade and investment. Foreign investment approvals from China amounted to $763 million in 2006, nearly double the 2005 figure, according to the Council for the Development of Cambodia. Those figures were expected to be even higher last year with the various deals signed by the two sides.
While the US tries to deflect China’s commercial diplomacy, Beijing has simultaneously landed on ways to unite economically and culturally with Cambodia, including through outreach to politically influential ethnic-Chinese entrepreneurs. It’s also apparent, some say, in the fading popularity of the English language over Mandarin Chinese, also known as Putonghua, in local schools. Cambodia is now home to the largest Chinese school in Southeast Asia, Duan Hua, which currently enrolls over 8,000 students. The most popular Chinese courses are specifically geared towards business, with students reasoning that English language capability may help to land jobs with international aid organizations, while Mandarin, which is taught across mainland China as the official language, will catapult them into more lucrative positions in business.
Another indication that China is winning the struggle for hearts and minds came in January, when Cambodian police halted and threatened to deport US activist actress Mia Farrow for attempting to stage a protest against China’s commercial relationship with Sudan’s murderous regime. Farrow said she picked Cambodia as a symbolic place for her protest, given both Sudan’s and Cambodia’s genocidal experiences while receiving Chinese assistance. Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said at the time that authorities banned the protest because it had “a political agenda against China”, a stance Hun Sen’s government clearly doesn’t share.
Geoffrey Cain is a Cambodia-based journalist. He may be reached at