The shrinking of Cambodia’s civic and political space mirrors the elections and authoritarian consolidation of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Since 2021, Cambodia’s civil society, media, and political actors have witnessed a fresh round of civic and political oppression leading to Cambodia’s election in July 2023, which was carefully engineered to consolidate the CPP’s power further and pave the way to transfer premiership from Father Prime Minister Hun Sen to Son Prime Minister Hun Manet. According to the latest CRS report for Congress on Cambodia, Cambodia courts have convicted more than 100 former politicians and opposition activists of crimes against the state since 2021 — Cambodian authorities targeted and deployed oppressive tactics to crush the civil society, media, and opposition. In February 2023, just four months into the election, the Cambodian government shut down the Voice of Democracy (VOD) office, the last independent media in the country. The ruling party, CPP, won 120 of the 125 seats in the national election on July 23, 2023, which the United States and other democratic countries called the election “neither free nor fair.” Despite international disappointments, China quickly welcomed the election results to provide CPP’s much-needed reassurance of Bejing’s support. On September 15, 2023, Hun Manet, West Point trained the new premier of Cambodia, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first bilateral trip to secure further support for his administration.
Cambodia’s modern history following the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces in 1991, Cambodia received significant global support for its development and post-conflict rehabilitation works. Consultative Group (CG) for Cambodia, a consortium of international financial institutions and donor countries facilitated by the World Bank Group, was created. Consultative Group provided aid packages of an average of 500 million per year that tied with economic and political reforms for the Cambodian government until 2007. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s unlawful seizure of power in 1997 was a hallmark event leading to Cambodia’s rocky relationship with the Western governments, especially with the United States. The United States banned direct bilateral aid to Cambodia, that was eventually lifted in 2007. During the ban, the United States continued to provide development aid through CG and channeled assistance through non-government entities, which later led to accusations of U.S. interference. Despite the odds, Cambodia remained the largest third recipient of United States assistance in Southeast Asia.
Since 1991, China has become the largest donor in Cambodia and investor in Cambodia. China is the largest source of external support by funding infrastructure, public works, and hydropower projects. Since the inception of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Cambodia has joined the BRI as a full-fledged member, and associated projects have been observed in Cambodia. Contrary to the West, China doesn’t set the conditions for protecting human rights and democracy in providing ODAs and loans. Beijing has used different modalities – the flood of aids, concessional loans, and investments through both public and private actors – to finance infrastructure development in Cambodia, which includes 1.9 billions USD price tag Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville expressway and a casino town in Sihanoukville that sparks controversial. The region has witnessed the spilled over of Chinese influence in Cambodia: the rise of organized crimes, illicit trades, money laundering, and human trafficking in the greater Mekong sub-region. David J.H. Blake (2019) warned – in Recalling Hydraulic Despotism: Hun Sen’s Cambodia and the Return of Strict Authoritarianism – that Cambodia has become a near model client state for China, in terms of both facilitating Chinese investment in Cambodia and supporting its foreign policy goals in South East Asia. Cambodia has also lent China its support to the One China policy and sided with China on the South China Sea dispute. Vice versa, China supports the authoritarian consolidation of Prime Minister Hun Sen by providing recognition, protection, and economic support. Cambodia’s economic vulnerability and dependency on China have reshaped not just Cambodia’s democratic paths but also the international security landscape in the region, as China has placed Cambodian foreign policy firmly under China’s influence.
As China’s economic coercion foreign policy becomes an imminent discussion in the region, some observers said Cambodia is also wary of the increase in China’s influence on the country and potential debt trap. The Cambodian government has started channeling Chinese private sector investments instead of relying on loans from Beijing directly. This approach will make no difference. It is crucial to ease Cambodia’s reliance on China, but the increased engagement with Cambodia has pros and cons. Some analysts say that Hun Manet will likely seek to balance China’s growing influence with that of the United States and other countries. Hun Manet’s exposure to the Western military and education experience may encourage him to rethink possible closer engagements with the United States and the West to reduce dependency on China and to initiate critical political and economic reforms. China as a significant player and alternative in the Mekong region for governments with authoritarian tendencies; conventional approaches like sanctions and isolation may not be a reliable strategy anymore. Engagement and non-engagement have their weight. The bottom line is that the need to counter China’s influence is huge not just for democracy and human rights in Cambodia but also for regional stability.
Aid and development | Open Development Cambodia (ODC). (2015, March 3). https://opendevelopmentcambodia.net/topics/aid-and-development/
The BRI’s Footprint in the Lower Mekong Region – Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. (2020, December 15). Www.rosalux.de. https://www.rosalux.de/en/news/id/43413/the-bris-footprint-in-the-lower-mekong-region
Xi Jinping Meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet. (n.d.). Chiangmai.china-Consulate.gov.cn. Retrieved October 15, 2023, from http://chiangmai.china-consulate.gov.cn/eng/zgyw/202310/t20231008_11157380.htm
Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com. (2018). Is Chinese investment taking over the Mekong? | DW | 15.01.2018. DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/en/is-chinese-investment-taking-over-the-mekong/a-42150023
Thomas Lum, CRS Report for Congress; Cambodia: Background and U.S. Relations, Congressional Research Service (Washington,D.C.: September 11, 2023)
Blake, D. J. H. (2019) Recalling hydraulic despotism: Hun Sen’s Cambodia and the return of strict authoritarianism. Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, 12(1), 69-89.
Thomas Lum, CRS Report for Congress; Cambodia: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington,D.C.: July 18, 2007)
Vathanak, C. (2021) China’s Official Development Assistance: An Implication of the Transport Infrastructure Development in Cambodia. Open Access Library Journal, 8, 1-11. doi: 10.4236/oalib.1107697.