Cambodia Entrapped by China’s New Silk Road Dominance

China’s ambitions for world domination under the presidency of Xi Jinping are well known. In 2013 Xi Jinping, who aims at permanent power, unveiled his huge project for the New Silk Roads (or Belt and Road Initiative), which are no more and no less than new axes of Chinese conquest or penetration throughout the world, under the cover of trade, investment and economic cooperation.

Based on the building of a vast network of land and sea connections between China, Europe and Africa, taking in central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and even extending to Latin America, Beijing is putting in place a global development strategy, made possible by China’s huge trading surpluses with the rest of the world.

Of course, such a global strategy mainly serves Chinese economic, political and strategic interests. China is moving into a leading, if not dominant position. A new global order is being defined in which China is seeking to promote its own norms and standards. The old Pax Americana, of which only traces now remain, will be replaced by the Pax Sinica.

Outdoing Western and other democratic powers with its superior financial strength combined with its aggressive diplomacy, using a predatory investment approach notably in the exploitation of natural resources and employing neo-colonial methods, China is exporting its governance style abroad. The approach combines brutality towards the local populations with generosity towards corrupt leaders in the countries where it invests, and China is quickly making allies, or rather protégés, among the developing world’s poorest and most authoritarian countries.

One of the first stops on the New Silk Road is Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Here the domination is not simply economic. China has become, by far, Cambodia’s largest investor and creditor, and this has led to political and ideological subordination as the Chinese vision seeks to remodel social relations, the political system and the state.

A revealing article was published in the Khmer Times in Phnom Penh on 27 March 2019, entitled “Hun Sen fires back at the EU and US over democracy”. After lurching towards totalitarianism despite European and US demands that Cambodia respect democracy and human rights, Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to his critics by saying that Cambodia “has its own laws” and telling the Western world that “you eat bread, but I eat rice”, while complaining that “there are too many standards in the world”.

On one level, this was simply a dictator contesting the universal values of democracy and human rights. The old refrain, however, has new cultural particularities as it seeks to justify Chinese power wielded through the New Silk Roads.

In the face of demands for the restoration of democracy, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental liberties after the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only opposition party represented in parliament, as well as the repression of civil society and the press, Hun Sen replied: “Cambodia has its own laws in ensuring democracy and human rights. Your concerns are not in line with ours, neither does it require to be mentioned in Cambodian laws. Cambodia has its own laws different from other countries.”

Such statements by Hun Sen are shocking in that the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 lay down for Cambodia a “system of liberal, pluralist democracy” based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There is real danger for a poor country like Cambodia in taking on excessive foreign debt and increasingly depending on Chinese cash. Easy money borrowed by a poor country can only lead to corruption among its leaders, especially when those leaders are dictators who are not accountable to their people. These corrupt dictators are engaging in increasingly irresponsible mismanagement. Worse, corruption arising from Chinese loans is deforming Cambodia’s institutions, politics and society. The result is deteriorating governance, which does no more than perpetuating the misery of the people.

The unconditional support of Beijing for successive Cambodian dictators – Pol Pot yesterday and Hun Sen today – shows China’s cynicism in its bilateral relations as it seeks to further its global dominance.

Cambodia’s alignment with an aggressive, expansionist China carries dangers for regional peace and security. Having brought his country’s economy to its knees through corruption and irrational policies, Hun Sen is now ever more dependent on Chinese generosity to avoid national bankruptcy. So, he quickly caves in to the demands of China, which wants military facilities as it seeks to take control of the South China Sea.

The China-Cambodia axis has disturbed the regional equilibrium and threatens the security of other countries, notably ASEAN members, whose position is weakened by Hun Sen’s complicity in Chinese expansionism. The full price to Cambodia of its excessive dependence on China is yet to be properly assessed.

Sam Rainsy

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