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Cambodian Democracy and Emerging Patterns of Chinese Influence

Image Credit: (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

Unlike the upset victory in Malaysia this May, there was little hope of a fair contest or distinct political shift in Cambodia’s election on 29 July. Instead, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) under leader Hun Sen successfully extended a 33-year tenure in office and is likely to deepen their grip on the national political arena.

The intervening years since the 2013 election have seen accelerated restrictions in important democratic preconditions and the Hun Sen regime maintains control over public institutions such as the military, police force, judiciary and press. Few expected the election to be either free or fair.

A particularly telling moment came in November 2017 when Cambodia’s supreme court dissolved the opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which accounted for 44.4% of the popular vote in the 2013 election. With the former CNRP leader Kem Sokha in prison awaiting trial and many important rank and file members in exile - including inaugural CNRP President Sam Rainsy - any real opposition had been fragmented and rendered ineffective.

This is clearly a domestic issue, but there are also international implications and concerns. Indeed, this election can give insight into the positioning of various states within an emerging geostrategic order.

As with many electoral issues, there was a notable spilt in the expressed positions of foreign powers. In one corner sat the usual Western bloc of democratic states. The United States and European Union both gave notice that they would break from tradition and not send an observation delegation to the 2018 election. Further, in a statement presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, a 45 country-strong contingent led by New Zealand condemned Cambodia’s recent actions, and urged them to reinstate the CNRP and restore some semblance of procedural fairness. Importantly, no South East Asian states were signatories, consistent with the norm of ASEAN consensus.

In the other camp were China and Japan, pledging diplomatic support and resources towards the July election. Both countries have been involved in the national re-development effort for many years, albeit China only more recently. Both have strategic partnerships with Cambodia.

It is of no surprise that China continues its endorsement of Cambodia’s government. Since 2004, they have contributed billions of dollars in soft loans and development investments, and indeed have even increased their support following public censures by the US and EU. This has already benefited China. For example, many have drawn the link between Chinese incentives and Cambodia’s rejection of ASEAN-wide condemnation of China on the South China Sea dispute, instead favouring the bilateralism also promoted by China.

More interesting is that Japan, rather than joining the diplomatic effort and sanctions regime with their western allies and democratic counterparts, continued to support the election financially, contributing US$7.5 million to the Cambodian National Election Committee, and decided to send an election monitoring delegation. As highlighted by Darren Touch, this can be explained within Japan’s broader strategic calculus. Japan is seeking to match China’s influence upon Cambodia and across the region, maintaining positive relations with Cambodia vis-à-vis the aforementioned group of Western states. Japan too has similar strategic interests in mind, namely the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan does not want to be outplayed by China.

This is part of a pattern of covert encouragement via aid and development money to sway local decision-making in favour of China at the expense of sovereignty and democratic accountability. This can be seen across ASEAN. Chinese Foreign Direct Investment in ASEAN countries rose to over US$14 billion in 2015.

This election is the latest in China’s strategy to influence election results for their own interests. To take another example: in July 2016, Pilipino President Rodrigo Duterte controversially dismissed a landmark UN arbitration case ruling in favour of the Philippines, which found that China had no historical case in the South China Sea. Following a state visit in October, both sides signalled a détente in inter-state relations, and Duterte was rewarded handsomely for his new Sino-friendly approach with US$24 billion in investment pledges.

Similarly, China is supporting Cambodia in return for strategic reciprocity. It seems that many regional powers are unwilling to take an independent stance on Cambodian democracy for fear of landing offside an emerging Sino-oriented Indo-Pacific.

Post-election, social unrest is entirely possible but the chance of real political change has been dashed. The CPP has never been stronger. Nonetheless, despite support from China and Japan, Hun Sen’s regime faces a difficult future. International criticism and domestic dissatisfaction will intensify in the long-term, whilst political opposition outside of country is already rallying. It is difficult to see a sustainable governance pathway. Whilst Cambodia’s future will remain uncertain, such patterns of Chinese behaviour in the region will no doubt continue.

Mason Littlejohn is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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