Hanoi vs Beijing – Where does Cambodia stand?

I don’t normally watch CNN and I certainly don’t recommend it–or any mainstream media outlet–as a serious source of news information. However, it is the only news channel that I can get on the TV in my Phnom Penh apartment which isn’t scrambled. And so, I often find myself flipping it on in the morning while getting dressed for work to listen with profound distaste about the latest global crisis sending the world into new, shocking depths of despair. Moreover, thanks to the internet, you can now watch videos of journalists and aid workers being beheaded in Syria, militarized American police units terrorizing poor communities in the US, emaciated babies dying of Ebola in Africa and bombs exploding in Gaza–all from the comfort of your home. These are truly the Dark Ages of the modern era.

Not to sound alarmist, but I contend that it is inevitable that a serious and austere flare-up of violence will inexorably make its way to this part of Southeast Asia–if it hasn’t already. We should all be cognizant of, or at least moderately acclimated with, Cambodia’s current political situation: the sporadic clashes between protestors and the security services during the elections last year, the exploited labour class demanding higher wages, and the country’s history of unspeakable brutality. But even this historical background is not necessarily what gives me pause, inundating me with the sense of apprehension that the current period of relative calm will be short-lived.

Things have indeed settled down in Cambodia over the past year, and the two main parties have an uneasy understanding as they push forward with a precarious power-sharing government. There has been some progress on the highly controversial immigration issue through the creation of two new departments at the Ministry of Interior charged with enforcing work permit requirements. There has also been agreement on the selection of members to the National Election Committee, a body which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) accused of fraud and lack of independence in last year’s National Assembly elections. Whether this is true progress or merely a few empty promises remains to be seen.

What worries me is every country surrounding Cambodia engaging in the type of geopolitical zero-sum game that would have earned a curt nod of the head from Machiavelli. Additionally, there is the reality that Prime Minister Hun Sen has demonstrated a propensity to work with all manner of political leaders throughout ASEAN, leaving the long-serving premier with his hands in too many pies. That is not a long-term strategy for a successful foreign policy.

Take the current Cambodian-Vietnamese relationship, for example. The current Government’s relationship with Hanoi is well-documented and stretches back decades to the Khmer Rouge era. There is also an economic component as well, due to Cambodia’s dependence on Vietnam for energy. According to the Cambodia Daily, Vietnam provides Cambodia with about 40 percent of its national electricity supply.

However, the past few months have been marked by a disturbing outbreak of virulently anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in Cambodia, rhetoric which has only been exacerbated by CNRP leader Sam Rainsy since returning to the country from self-imposed exile last year.

Paralleling this problem is the amount of foreign direct investment supplied by Chinese interests in Cambodia. Most of Cambodia’s garment factories are owned by Chinese companies which treat manual labour with benign neglect and the environment as a disposal nuisance. A recent inspection of a Chinese-owned sweatshop in Svay Rieng province by a colleague revealed workers using tree logs to burn old clothes as a means of providing power to the facility. Yeah, I’m sure the carbon tax will save us all from climate change.

It just so happens that Beijing and Hanoi have been embroiled in a row in the South China Sea over a group of islands and atolls which may or may not contain vast deposits of oil and which certainly contain vast deposits of fish. During the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia blocked any discussion of the issue by preventing it from appearing on the meeting’s agenda. This was the host country’s right as chair of the meeting for the year but it was almost certainly done at Beijing’s request. US$70 million in soft loans, as well as a pledge to double bilateral trade between the two countries, was promised shortly after.

Coming to Hanoi’s aid has been the Philippines whose officials have demanded that China follow the U.N. Convention on Laws of the Sea regarding territorial claims. Taiwan and Brunei have separate claims to the island chain as well.

But an examination of the Law of the Sea convention only makes the issue more complicated. According to the convention, states are conferred sovereignty up to twelve nautical miles from their coast out to sea; beyond twelve miles is considered international waters. However, the clause pertaining to Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) extends a state’s baseline, or shore, to 200 miles off its coast. Furthermore, a state’s claim that the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are a part of their physical territory suggests that they can begin counting off their twelve original miles from the islands themselves, not just the territory within their sovereign borders. “China…says that it has held sovereignty over the South China Sea for centuries,” according to a VOA news article on the subject.

The situation has become ever more dangerous in recent months. Chinese Coast Guard patrols have attacked Vietnamese fishing trawlers in the area with phlegmatic normalcy. These actions have led to a wave of protests throughout the Vietnamese rural hinterland with anti-China demonstrators laying waste to Chinese-owned manufacturing plants.

This is to say nothing of the political turmoil in Thailand, where the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra was removed and replaced by a military junta last May. One of the first orders of business announced by the junta’s headman, General Prayuth, was to enforce Thailand’s latent immigration laws, resulting in a mass exodus of Cambodian workers from the country. The decision might also make things difficult for non-working expatriates in the Land of Smiles, several of whom will doubtless consider relocating to the Kingdom of Wonder.

So the Cambodian Government has close ties with both Vietnam and China. Vietnam is in dispute with China and has now moved closer to the U.S., as per a bilateral nuclear agreement signed by the two countries last year. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy dislikes Vietnam but is being supported by a reactionary faction of the US Government who would like to see a change in political leadership in Cambodia. The uncertainty in Thailand adds another wildcard to the tinderbox.

Would a comparison to 1914 Europe be out-of-line? The tangled web of alliances and the internal political dissent are eerily reminiscent of the immediate pre-war period. The cataclysmic upheaval of several long-standing, authoritarian regimes soon followed.

China and ASEAN appear to be on a collision course that threatens to reshape the entire region. Despite the view that China’s military is nothing more than a “paper tiger,” it’s still a force to be reckoned with as 3 million people in both the active service and the reserves suggest.

And Cambodia? Well, Cambodia appears to be stuck in the middle of it all, playing both sides. At some point, Cambodia will have to choose which side to support. China contributed to Phnom Penh’s coffers, but Vietnam provides a significant amount of Cambodia’s energy. Taking an ambivalent stance might be “the Asian way,” but it is unlikely to placate this conflict’s belligerents. In fact, doing so might reduce Cambodia to little more than a killing field on which a regional war would be fought.

Some might say my postulations are spurious, and that there is no conceivable way that a war in the Asian theatre could erupt in the not-too-distant future. After all, far more serious disputes have been resolved amicably, and there is always hope for diplomacy and negotiations to trump violence.

Cambodia’s leaders will have to pick a side, however, in one shape or another. And that decision is likely to determine the future configuration of the country for many years to come. Considering it has only been two decades since the Cambodia’s civil war concluded, I fear the possibility for another round of conflicts here is very real.

9 thoughts on “Hanoi vs Beijing – Where does Cambodia stand?

  1. andy Reply

    I don’t see war in the middle distance, but I do see serious economic repercussions. Both parties, CPP and CNRP are cozying up too far to China, at the risk of alienating relationships within ASEAN and with Japan, S. Korea and the US. Cambodia could end up a friendless vassal of China, which will not be a pleasant situation. Cambodia needs to stand alongside it’s regional neighbours and keep a neutral course, rather than be swayed by short-term greed and bigoted racism.

  2. Dave Spart Reply

    Ah, yes … how time flies!

    It seems only the other day that Red China was Uncle Sam’s Big New Best Friend and tacitly allowed to invade horrid Vietnam.

    The reality of Southeast Asia is that China is a world power and teeny Vietnam is not; the fact that you-know-who began his political career as a Hanoi stooge is beside the point.

    Everyone wants to be chums with the dollar-rich Beijing bosses these days, not the threadbare Hanoi bosses.

    • Jimmy Reply

      Four decades ago, dollar-rick Bejing backed Polpot
      to kill his own people, more than million Khmers perished.
      Now dollar-rich Bejing do it again to North Korea. Sihanouk
      called China “My Dear Friend” so he spent the rest of his
      life in exile.
      Hun Sen defeated Polpot with all supports from Vietnam to
      put Cambodia back to life and to put Sihanouk back to the
      king position. Hun Sen takes all credits for those works.
      Rainsy knows he can’t beat Hun Sen if he doesn’t degrade
      Vietnamese. It’s a political tactic, a dirty trick of a
      political campaign. Wake up Khmers! be realistic.
      Don’t get me into an argument, because “monkey think monkey see”

  3. Noodles Reply

    Ok, so you can at least see that CNN is bs and carbon tax is a scam, which is a good start. Now try to dislodge the remaining indoctrination that still seem firmly in place, yet there is hope for you yet.

    Lets look at the ‘sweatshops’ – a word created with a purpose, and that purpose was to stir an emotional reaction and to prevent a sober examination of what’s hidden behind that word.

    Go to a local ‘sweatshop’ in PP and observe the workers as they leave. Draw your own conclusions about their mood. Ask some of them about their career options were the ‘sweatshops’ all closed. To return to the village and work the jointly owned rice field, to be paid in rice, enough to eat and no more and often less. The village headsman and family and their relatives smoothly take their place as the factory owner. So, using the same politicized words, the proletariat still gets exploited despite the communal village setting and its socialist lifestyle that the creators of the word ‘sweatshop’ so heavily romanticized. Basically there is no chance for these poor exploited sweatshop workers to be able to better their lives when no hard currency changes hands. They and their children are forever sentenced to pick, eat and shit rice.

    Yet at the sweatshop, they are earning hard currency that is saved – saved and sent back to the province, where all sorts of possibilities now open up for the family. A motobike is purchased and begins generating income by delivering people and packages. One of the kids gets to a university and becomes a physician for example, making 1000$ per month selling medicine to pharmacies in the provinces.

    A ‘sweatshop’ is the only means for a villager to break the endless cycle of poverty that doesn’t involve whoring or narcotics. Ask the workers, and meditate on this concept.

  4. Spammer Reply

    What kind of articles is this? Get to the point! By the time I reached the 3rd paragraph, I had completely forgotten what the title was.

  5. Glenn Reply

    Thailand will play a big role in the shape of SE Asia from here on.

    During WW2 the Bangkok elite completely broke ranks with nations it had previously been friends with and declared war on Britain and her Allies. By a strange twist of history the Thai Ambassador refused to communicate the declaration in Washington which meant that Thailand was never at war with USA technically.

    With the recent change of government in Bangkok,Thailand has made a huge change in policy and sees China as its major ally. This means that any aggression by China will be fully supported by the Bangkok elite in exactly the same way they backed the Japanese in 1941.

    Some think, wrongly in my view, that Thailand was an ally of USA. The Royal Thai Army never entered the war in Vietnam although a number of Thai volunteers joined the war on the American side. Sources, who may know, claim that the CIA had to pay the king of Thailand a huge sum of money to enable US and allies to use Thailand as a base during the conflict in Vietnam. The problems in Thailand are invisible to the naked eye but broadly speaking there is a huge rift where the rural population would like an alliance with the western countries and Asean while the Bangkok elite who are actually running the show are dictating that Thailand and China are now firm allies in the region. In some of Thailand’s tourist areas Chinese tourists have been banned while in Bangkok the orders from the generals are that the provincial Thais must learn to Kowtow to the Chinese. Not a good scenario for a divided Asean.

  6. jixiang Reply

    Within South-East Asia, Cambodia is widely seen as a Chinese client state. It gives China diplomatic support in exchange for aid and trade. I doubt this situation will change. From what I’ve heard, ordinary Cambodians also dislike Vietnam, which must make it easier for the government to sell this line to them.

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