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.