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Cambodia's Troubling Tilt Toward China

And What It Means for Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy

Chinese President Xi Jinping smiles next to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, October 2016.  Samrang Pring / REUTERS

When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed a landslide victory in the country’s July 29 elections, most international observers quickly denounced the results as rigged. Given that the election has helped consolidate Hun Sen’s 33-year, increasingly authoritarian hold on power, these accusations are troubling. Even more troubling, however, may be Hun Sen’s recent tilt toward China and the increasing local and regional benefits Beijing is receiving from its relationship with Cambodia.

For myriad reasons, Washington has long considered Cambodia a strategic lost cause. Yet the country’s Chinese turn should serve as a warning of what China’s growing economic presence, especially in authoritarian countries, will mean for Southeast Asia and Eurasia more broadly. To respond effectively, the United States and its allies need to look at Cambodia with fresh eyes as both a national security challenge and opportunity. Although Hun Sen has tightened his grip on the

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