The perception of a new Cold War between China and the US seems to have emerged. Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, during an August interview with The American Prospect, stated that the United States is “at economic war with China ... One of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years and it’s gonna be them if we go down this path.” In sync with these comments, US President Donald Trump has launched investigations into Chinese intellectual property theft that could lead to US tariffs on Chinese imports. It seems that the Trump administration views China as a possible threat to US preeminence.
According to George Washington University historian Gregg Brazinsky in his new book, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, Washington has long feared that “China will spread a model of political and economic development that will fundamentally undermine the liberal international order that the United States seeks to uphold.” This is to say that Washington favors national self-determination within a liberal, capitalist international order while China, by contrast, prefers economic, socialist self-reliance. Historically, these different views have led China and the US into open conflict, first in the Korean War in which China backed North Korea and the US backing the South; and later in Vietnam where China buttressed the communist insurgency against the French and then the Americans.
Cambodia was the victim of this great power competition during the 1970s. Lt. Gen. Lon Nol, the premier and defense minister held a pro-US foreign policy while Prince Sihanouk, the head of state, pursued a neutrality policy, and was seen tilting towards China. The prince was under pressure from the US and South Vietnam for his tolerance of the North Vietnamese and sanctuary for the Vietcong in the eastern region of Cambodia. With strong US support, Lon Nol led a bloody military coup to oust the prince when he was on his way back to Cambodia from a tour of Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. However, due to the withdrawal of American soldiers in South Vietnam, Lon Nol was defeated in 1975 by the Cambodian communist leader Pol Pot, who was underpinned by China and North Vietnam. Cambodia under Pol Pot saw the brutal extermination of nearly 2 million people.
Recently, the arrest of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha on the charge of treason — his alleged conspiracy with the US to seize power from the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) — and the closure of local media and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an American-funded institution to promote democracy in Cambodia and around the world, have caused more political friction among Cambodian political elites and sparked more debate about the future direction of Cambodia’s foreign policy. The question that needs to be answered is whether Cambodia is likely to move along a tragic historical path.
Following Kem Sokha’s arrest, the US ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt delivered a statement denying all the allegations associated with the US, and stated that he was surprised that Kem Sokha was accused of being connected with the US. The ambassador found all of it extraordinary and called for the immediate release of Kem Sokha. However, the ambassador did not acknowledge the fact that the NDI, according to its 2009 report “Electoral Reform in Cambodia: Program Consultation Reports,” has provided technical assistance to parties and civic groups and aided democratic activists working through these groups on electioneering. Different groups may interpret this differently; however, to the Cambodian ruling elites, this could be seen as interference in Cambodia’s political process, thereby justifying the expulsion of the NDI from the country.
Even though the current situation has not yet returned Cambodia to the old tragic days of great power rivalry, Cambodia under the ruling CPP needs to critically consider the consequences of alienating the US and embracing China.
China has stepped in to lend a hand to Cambodia. China’s foreign affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang announced that China would support Cambodia’s effort to protect national security and stability. During his meeting with Cambodian National Assembly president Heng Samrin, Wang Jiarui, the Vice President of the National Committee of the Chinese’s People Political Consultative Conference said: “China will cooperate and assist Cambodia in all circumstances.” China has long believed that regime change in authoritarian states has been one of the top priorities of US policy across the globe, for example in Syria and Serbia. Moreover, China, which perceives itself as the patron of Cambodia, needs to sustain Hun Sen’s regime partly because a new leadership from the opposition party may not grant China its geopolitical interests, such as support for China in the South China Sea dispute.
Some analysts have commented that the current great power rivalry in Cambodia is a new type of Cold War, reminiscent of what happened in 1960s and 1970s when the foreign policy orientation of the political leaders was politically divided. One should notice that the situation is now a small-scale version of great power competition between China and the US. With that said, to predict what would happen in the short-term future, we will need to closely observe the evolving dynamics of great power politics in Cambodia.
First, the power contest between China and the US in Asia is one of the key yardsticks to determine whether Cambodia is likely to become a Cold War battleground. American power today under President Donald Trump is seen as waning while Chinese power under President Xi Jinping is seen as growing. This could be the reason why President Trump is not interested in the promotion of democracy and human rights as evident in his speeches as well as his “America First” slogan. President Trump has also proposed to cut the financial budget for aid to developing countries. In that proposal, Cambodia could be hit by a 70 percent cut, with a decline in contributions to Cambodia from USD 77.4 million to USD 22.9 million, as well as the complete eradication of development assistance worth USD 34.8 million and USD 8 million in economic support.
Trump’s proposed budget cut could mean the end of democracy and human rights promotion. This could also mean a downgrade in the US pressure against Cambodia’s CPP government. This argument rests on the assumption that if people are aware of their right to take part in democratic elections, it will not be easy for the CPP to take the free ride. In this case, for Cambodia to become a Cold War battleground, the Trump administration has to keep upholding conventional practices like his predecessors have done. However, what is happening now is the exact opposite.
Second, the domestic power asymmetry between the CPP and the CRNP is another determining factor. Despite technical and financial assistance to the CNRP from the US, it does not have a likely chance to win the upcoming elections in 2018. One has to be aware that the ruling CPP has complete control over the military. As deputy military commander Chea Dara stated: “Every soldier is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP because Samdech Decho [Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander, and leader of the army.” More recently, as proposed by Hun Sen, Cambodia’s National Assembly has approved four amendments to the country’s electoral law, allowing for the dissolution of the CNRP and the redistribution of its seats to smaller government-aligned parties.
Even though the current situation has not yet returned Cambodia to the old tragic days of great power rivalry, Cambodia under the ruling CPP needs to critically consider the consequences of alienating the US and embracing China. This could, for example, lead to economic vulnerability arising from being too dependent on China; domestic political divisions arising from different foreign policy ideologies; China’s political proxy state, non-neutral foreign policy orientation; and, most seriously, civil war. To avoid these consequences, the Cambodian government should encourage national unity, promote fair and democratic multi-party elections, strengthen democratic institutions, and preserve the rule of law. These are the ways forward and they remain the only hope for the ordinary Cambodian people.