Cambodia’s new world

The ongoing political transition in Cambodia has implications for the strategic future of a small state in Southeast Asia. The promotion in the military of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, brings him closer to being his father’s political successor. The Cambodian general election — slated for this July — may cement the younger Hun’s career progress to the premiership. No matter how the results go, whoever leads Cambodia would need to understand instinctively the geopolitical parameters within which the country has to function. Today, those parameters are contoured by the irresistible rise of China as a great power, as once they were hemmed in by the wartime excesses of American hegemony.

History influences strategy deeply. It is no exaggeration to say that history, in the form of the US, has been unkind to Cambodia. The Ho Chi Minh Trail — a logistical network of roads and trails that ran from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia — constituted the symbolic geography that invited American military wrath during the Vietnam War.

According to Jessica Pearce Rotondi, writing in the journal History in 2019, the American bombing of Laos (1964 to 1973) was part of a covert attempt by America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “to wrest power from the communist Pathet Lao, a group allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War. The officially neutral country became a battleground in the Cold War between the United States (US) and (the) Soviet Union, with American bombers dropping over two million tons of cluster bombs over Laos — more than all the bombs dropped during World War Two combined. Today, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in history”.

Crucible of the Cold War

Official neutrality did not prevent Cambodia from making the casualty headlines during
the Cold War. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan write that, from Oct 4, 1965, to Aug 15, 1973, the US “dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites.

Just over 10% of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having ‘unknown’ targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all”. American commanders with a keen sense of black humour labelled the timings of the “Menu” campaign, waged against targets in Cambodia’s border areas, as Breakfast, Lunch, Supper, Dinner, Dessert and Snack.

The authors add: “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.”

Contemporary Cambodia was born in the crucible of Cold War horrors. Like many other nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Cambodia answers to the scholar Charles Tilly’s famous dictum: “War made the state, and the state made war”. Although Tilly drew his conclusion from European processes of state formation, his ideas apply to Asian processes of state consolidation as well.

The Vietnam War, which ended in a fashion with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and the countervailing Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, steeled Cambodia (like Laos) into statehood. And the Cambodian state went to war (as states are wont to do). The 2008 Preah Vihear border skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand, both members of Asean, underlined the reality of Cambodia as a state.

By taking on a vastly more powerful neighbour, and that, too, within Asean’s ameliorative framework, Cambodia sought to reiterate its sovereign credentials. To say this is not to take sides in a historical dispute that stretches back to the Siamese-Vietnamese War of 1833 to 1846 or to suggest, of course, that Asean is a fruitless exercise in regionalism,
but to argue that Cambodia had arrived at a point of national certainty that made it possible for it to declare its statehood through war if necessary.

This is no small thing. Norodom Sihanouk, the aristocratic architect of modern Cambodia, will be identified with his nation’s fortunes forever. Hun Sen must be credited with acilitating Cambodia’s journey beyond Cold War certainties. An iron ruler, he has recreated his country in his unforgiving likeness. Dissension has been disowned, the opposition is not exactly flourishing, and he has become almost the sole voice of the Cambodian people on the international stage. Democratic purists find all this intolerable, but Cambodians have learned to live with him. Wishful foreign thinking will not change the course of politics in Cambodia (or Myanmar, where a far more hardline government, a junta no less, rules).

It is within this framework that Cambodia would decide its foreign policy priorities. China looms large in that framework.

The China factor

Cambodia’s closeness to China is given to contemporary Southeast Asian politics. It is based on the Kingdom’s economic relations with the Asian great power. China was responsible for a welcome 44% of the country’s total foreign direct investment between 1994 and 2021.

China is also Cambodia’s largest trading partner. China has overtaken Japan for over a decade as Cambodia’s largest official development aid and soft-loan provider.

Combine these economic factors with the political understanding that comes from both states being authoritarian, and the grounds of the special China-Cambodia relationship become clear.

With China, Cambodia does not have to encounter the irritating Western penchant for reading international relations through the lens of liberal democracy, a view that naturally disfavours a polity such as Cambodia.

However, it is important that Cambodia should not be seen as a Chinese proxy, something that it came close to being identified as in 2012, when, under its chairmanship, Asean failed to issue a joint statement on its position on the South China Sea dispute. Many held Cambodia, acting under Chinese aegis, responsible for scuttling the joint statement,
which weakened Asean’s position in China.

Cambodia has since moved away from the perception of its being a Chinese bridgehead in Southeast Asia. In the journal, Fulcrum, Melinda Martinus and Chhay Lim describe how Cambodia’s foreign policy independence
from China “was most apparent in dealing with the war against Ukraine. Surprisingly, Cambodia consistently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… One might have expected Cambodia to follow China’s lead in refusing to condemn Russia’s actions or remain neutral because of Hun Sen’s relatively cordial relationship with Moscow. Cambodia
has continued to exercise its agency to support the Ukrainian people”.

The authors add that Cambodia should repair its relations with the West and strengthen its engagement with regional powers other than China “for its future economic and security guarantees”. This is because the “next generation of Cambodia’s leadership needs domestic and international legitimacy to continue ‘diversifying’ its foreign policy and to show that Cambodia will not put all its eggs in only China’s basket”.

Most of the eggs would still lie in the Chinese basket. There is no reason why Cambodia should give up its all-weather friendship with a rising power to throw in its lot with the uncertain trajectory of America’s place in the world. The chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 — which replicated beyond belief the disastrous withdrawal from
Vietnam in 1975 — was a lesson in the costs of imperial overreach. The Ukraine conflict, essentially a proxy war between the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and Russia, the rump state of the erstwhile Soviet Union, has turned into a war of attrition in which neither side is willing clearly. In no sense is the West winning.

Still, Cambodia cannot afford to be held hostage by its horrific recent past, in which it was a victim of great-power politics. Today, it must balance its closeness to China with a desire to make the most of its place in a multipolar world. The US, the European Union, Japan, India and other power centres would all welcome Cambodia as a necessary part of their international calculations.No matter how the coming election turns out and what it leads to, Hun Sen must leave behind the legacy of forming a strong small state.

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