Cambodia’s long serving Premier Hun Sen has just issued a defiant set of statements aimed at the United States. Hun Sen who has been in power since 1985 and consolidating his rule ever since, and has now turned to the US, telling Washington that its aid is effectively no longer welcomed if it comes with political strings attached.
Pro-government Fresh News reported,
“Samdech Techo Hun Sen confirmed that cutting U.S. aid won’t kill the government but will only kill a group of people who serve American policies”.
Fresh News further reported,
“Hun Sen … welcomes and encourages the U.S. to cut all aid”.
Hun Sen’s personal history in terms of political loyalists is something of a pendulum. While he once was a member of the China backed and covertly US armed and sponsored Khmer Rouge government, in 1977 he switched sides and backed pro-Vietnamese (Soviet backed) forces.
He first took office in 1985 during the period of Vietnamese occupation following the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War which was won by Hanoi, thus resulting in the fall of the Khmer Rouge in what was then Democratic Kampuchea.
Since 1985, Hun Sen has worked to consolidate his power. Since effectively purging his opponents in 1997, he has worked to develop increasingly good relations with China, in spite of his history of being backed by Vietnam.
While some of Hen Sen’s opponents still accuse him of being too close with Vietnam, the reality is that under Hun Sen, Cambodia is moving towards a decidedly pro-Chinese geo-economic position. China is now the key investor in Cambodia and Hen Sun’s anti-US comments seem clearly motivated by a sense of confidence that US investment falls flat of the potential offered by China.
By East Asian standards, Cambodia is small, with a population of just over 15 million. Since the 1990s, Cambodian goods, particularly finished textiles have become increasingly common throughout the world, including the west. This helps explain why many in western business circles are reticent to sanction Cambodia, even though as Phnom Penh moves closer to Beijing, many in Washington want to sanction Cambodia, using internal political consolidation moves by Hen Sen as the tired excuse justifying such actions.
Realistically, Cambodia’s path could pose problems for US designs on Vietnam. Ever since the 1990s, the US has worked hard to establish closer ties with Hanoi. The rationale behind rapprochement with a Communist Vietnamese government that the US fought for 20 years is simple enough. Vietnam remains the most outwardly anti-China government in the region and the crux of US policy in Asia is that ‘whatever is bad for China is good for the US’. This also is the overt rationale behind Washington’s new bonds with India, a traditional Soviet/Russian ally whose increasingly vocal anti-Chinese sentiments have caught the ear of an exploitative United States.
In spite of this, China remains Vietnam’s number one trading partner and during the recent APEC summit, Vietnam offered vague commitments to de-escalation in the South China Sea dispute in which America has staunchly backed the Vietnamese position vis-a-vis China.
However, to understand how the events in Cambodia might relate to future US-Vietnam relations, one must turn to Philippines.
Philippines has traditionally been Washington’s number one ally in South East Asia, but since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, Manila has openly and rapidly pivoted towards both China and Russia. In many ways, not having taken a side in the Sino-Soviet split of the Cold War, Philippines is better placed than Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos to make such a pivot towards the allied super-powers whose former conflict still resonates in some parts of South East Asia, although increasingly little.
Duterte also took the bold step to be the first South East Asian leader to engage in a fully-fledged commitment to peace and cooperation with China over the South China Sea. This game-changing cooperation initiative now provides a new model for all of South East Asia. While Vietnam’s history of antagonism vis-a-vis China dates back to ancient history, according to contemporary considerations, it is not wide of the mark to say that if a country as formerly pro-American as Philippines can pivot away from Washington and towards both China and Russia, so too could a country like Vietnam which retains virtually unbroken good relations with Moscow.
Cambodia was South East Asia’s most unfortunate political football that the US used to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. Now though, Cambodia seems to have secured China’s place in its economic future, while telling the US that its conditional economic investment is effectively surplus to requirements…the subtext being, ‘because of China’.
If countries that used to be unabashedly in Washington’s corner ranging from Turkey to Philippines can ‘pivot east’, and if Cambodia whose fraught internal and geo-political history can pivot (back) to China, there is every possibility that Vietnam could one day do the same.
If Vietnam can be convinced that China has no designs on Vietnam’s internal affairs which in 2017, it most certainly does not and if along with this, Hanoi and Beijing can reach an understanding similar to that which was reached between Manila and Beijing, the US will have to settle for a relationship with Vietnam that due to recent history, will be far more limited than present relations with Philippines, which still technically remain strong because of the residual effects of a substantial shared (though totally unevenly shared) 20th century history.
If this happens, the US will have lost its ability to use substantial amounts of geo-political leverage on South East Asia. China will have asserted its model as superior to that of the US model for South East Asian economic development and the US will simply have to strike deals in accordance with broadly Chinese style guidelines. Russia which maintains its good post-Cold War relations with countries like Vietnam while building new bridges to Philippines, is another clear winner and one which could play a vital role in stimulating a more meaningful rapprochement between Hanoi and Beijing.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder the US has attempted to rename South East Asia the ‘Indo-Pacific’. The fact of the matter is, in the area that actually is South East Asia, the US is becoming increasingly isolated as China’s model is becoming far too attractive for even former foes of Beijing to ignore or oppose.