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 country and pushed it closer to Beijing, there actually exists widespread, if quiet, anger among ordinary citizens at their government’s subservience to China.
TIES THAT BIND
Over the past two decades, China has worked diligently to cultivate ties to Cambodia’s strongman. Beijing has continued to back Hun Sen as he has dissolved Cambodia’s main opposition party, thrown its leader in jail, manipulated social media to boost his perceived popularity, and presided over the hollowing out of the country’s two largest independent newspapers. When a crackdown on political opposition started last November, China came to the government’s defense. After meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in late March, Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page that “Chinese leaders would like to support and wish Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] to win the election and lead Cambodia’s destiny to make it become more developed in the future.” And in the run-up to July’s elections, China’s ambassador to Cambodia attended a ruling party election rally in Phnom Penh.
This support has taken more tangible forms as well. Last December,
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