By: Murray Hiebert, Phuong Nguyen
Cambodia’s foreign relations map has undergone dramatic shifts in the past six months. In the aftermath of Cambodia’s elections in July 2013, Beijing promptly recognized the results and congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party for their victory. However, as anti-government protests led by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party grew in the weeks that followed, with protesters condemning the elections as fraudulent and calling on Hun Sen to step down, China has since largely remained silent and kept the prime minister at arm’s length.
At the same time, the Cambodian government in the past few months has moved to consolidate its relations with Vietnam following several years of deteriorating ties between the two neighbors. Phnom Penh made this move despite the anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia fed by opposition leader Sam Rainsy that has gained traction since the elections.
Hun Sen is struggling to deal with growing opposition to his rule and grievances from the public on labor rights and governance at a time when Cambodia is at a critical political and economic crossroads. The country is seeking to become more integrated with the rest of Southeast Asia and the world in the years ahead. Cambodia’s youth is increasingly more educated and exposed to democratic norms and the outside world.
Hun Sen, whose strong-arm tactics largely worked in the past, now faces what is perhaps the most serious challenge to his rule in decades and is seeking outside recognition to boost his domestic legitimacy. The truth is, even if his party manages to win the next elections, Hun Sen must continue to deal with growing demands for greater transparency, better rule of law and more democracy.
China, until recently Cambodia’s most important patron, has not been willing to offer Hun Sen much political backing. While the two governments continue to maintain high-level meetings and exchanges, there has been a shift in Beijing’s policy toward Cambodia. Shortly after Hun Sen announced he would not step down in the face of opposition-led protests, an article in China’s state-controlled Xinhua in late December quoted Khmer analysts calling for national referendum  on whether to organize new elections. Chinese leaders probably will not give Hun Sen the cold shoulder anytime soon, but they seem to be charting a middle course and slowly moving away from their past policy of wholeheartedly endorsing his government.
The social and political changes taking place in Cambodia have not been lost on Beijing. Chinese leaders could be hedging their bets on Cambodia’s political future to avoid the kind of strategic blunders they made in Myanmar in recent years. Beijing long threw its support to Myanmar’s military regime and was taken unaware by the sweeping reforms President Thein Sein launched in 2011. Chinese leaders did not begin to face up to the new political reality in Myanmar until Thein Sein suspended construction of the multibillion dollar Chinese-backed Myitsone dam.
As part of its new policy, China is engaging different actors in Myanmar’s emerging political scene, from parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann and army chief Min Aung Hlaing to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Chinese leaders who have largely given Thein Sein the cold shoulder are now considering an official invitation for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China. Neither President Xi Jinping nor Premier Li Keqiang made a stop in Myanmar during their diplomatic blitz across Southeast Asia in 2013. Interestingly, Cambodia was not included in that itinerary either, despite being a staunch ally and a popular investment destination for Chinese businesses.
Meanwhile, relations between Vietnam and Cambodia have blossomed during the past few months. Hanoi has provided Hun Sen with much needed outside recognition and a boost to his legitimacy. In late December, Hun Sen visited Vietnam ahead of the 35th anniversary of the ouster of the Khmer Rouge by Hanoi’s troops, and Vietnamese leaders lavishly congratulated him for his role in rebuilding Cambodia.
Two weeks after Hun Sen’s trip, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Cambodia, where the two leaders co-chaired a bilateral trade and investment conference – the largest since 2009 – and pledged to boost economic ties in banking, finance, agribusiness, tourism and telecommunications. At the end of 2012, Vietnamese businesses had invested around $3 billion in nearly 130 projects in Cambodia, making Vietnam one of the country’s top foreign investors. China, in comparison, invested a total of $9.17 billion in the country between 1994 and 2012.
Hanoi is closely watching the political turmoil in Cambodia, but still jumped at the chance to patch up ties with Phnom Penh following several years of irritation over border demarcation and Cambodia’s siding with China over the South China Sea disputes. In the foreseeable future, Hanoi still has an interest in sustaining regime stability in Cambodia and the ruling party’s grip on power given how overtly anti-Vietnamese Sam Rainsy has shown himself to be. For instance, Rainsy has recently declared that Vietnam is encroaching on Chinese territory in the South China Sea, in the same fashion that he alleges the nation is grabbing Cambodian territory.
Offering Hun Sen political support when he most needed it, as well as strengthening bilateral economic ties, seemed like a logical choice for Vietnamese leaders. Hanoi is also concerned about the increasingly anti-Vietnamese rhetoric among the Cambodian population. Launching the new Cho Ray Phnom Penh Hospital, a joint venture between Vietnam’s Saigon Medical Investment and Cambodia’s Sokimex, was perhaps an effort to soften anti-Vietnamese sentiment through joint cooperation in the health sector.
But realistically, Hanoi’s support alone is insufficient to assure Cambodia’s and Hun Sen’s autonomy among foreign powers. Beijing’s noncommittal stance in recent months might also have prompted Hun Sen to look for support beyond his traditional patrons. For instance, he shrewdly used Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Cambodia in November 2013 to boost his domestic legitimacy – by asking Abe for advice on electoral reforms – and his position vis-à-vis China.
Hun Sen and Abe issued an unusual statement on bilateral maritime security cooperation, underscoring the need to settle disputes peacefully and according to international law. The two countries agreed to boost military ties, with Japanese experts, including those from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, expected to provide training to Cambodian military personnel for future United Nations peacekeeping operations. And in stark contrast to what happened at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh in 2011, Cambodia did not object to tabling a discussion on China’s Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea during the Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo in December 2013.
Cambodia is evolving quickly, both politically and economically, and it remains to be seen whether Hun Sen can retain power for several more election cycles. Beijing’s new strategic calculus in Cambodia has suddenly left Hun Sen feeling vulnerable, at least for the moment. This has prompted Hun Sen to work to boost his standing among other regional actors, particularly Japan, Vietnam and ASEAN, by offering them his support on issues of contention with China such as territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the CSIS Sumitro Chair. Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.