Questionable Stance of Cambodia’s Policy on China as Manet attends 3rd BRI Forum Meeting in Beijing
Prof Rajaram Panda

Cambodia’s cosiness with China is a matter of worry for the ASEAN grouping. Cambodia pursued a pro-China policy during the outgoing rule of Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving Prime Ministers and who announced his relinquishment of the top office on 26 July after 38 years in power. Hun Sen’s departure from office signified an end of an era in Cambodian politics but he continues to remain a heavyweight in Cambodian politics. His son Hun Manet took up his father’s mantle on 22 August without any trouble.

This landmark political shift and the emergence of a new leader ignited debates on the Kingdom’s future. In focus was if the country’s foreign policy shall see a new direction. Analysts pondered if Manet’s western education shall encourage him to have greater engagement with the West, and in a departure from the much-hyped perception that Cambodia leaned closer towards China during Hun Sen’s tenure. It was speculated that Manet might be influenced by his exposure to western education and could undertake some political change. Even if that happens, Manet needs to work hard to regain influence in the Southeast Asian country of 16.5 million, given China’s strategic and economic importance. However, the initial months have provided subtle hints that Manet shall continue to follow his father’s path in navigating the country’s future. So, a new direction in Cambodia’s foreign policy direction does not seem likely.

Background of Manet

Manet enlisted in the army and had attended the US Military Academy West Point from 1995 to 1999, graduating in May 1999 and became the first Cambodian to attend the prestigious institution. Now as the country’s leader, Manet serves as deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and commander of the Royal Cambodian Army. He also earned his Masters in economics in 2002 from New York University and a Ph.D. degree from Bristol University in the UK in 2008. Thus, Manet is well grounded to take considered decision on the country’s domestic and foreign policies.[1]

Likely Change in Foreign Policy Direction

Notwithstanding Cambodia’s pursuance of a pro-China policy and Manet unlikely to abandon it, he is likely to balance ties with the US and its key Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea. This is expected to be premised on establishing strong foundations of mutual benefit and respect. The argument that exposure to western education and western values would necessarily determine a leader’s policy choices in another country with different background could be a flawed argument. For example, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un’s leadership decisions are no where influenced by Swiss values where he was educated. Even the leaders of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regimes were educated in Paris. History is testimony to how the Khmer Rouge regime behaved, well known for its highly autocratic, repressive and totalitarian activities.

Given the above considerations, the Western governments are aware of Cambodia’s foreign policy inclinations and that Cambodian economy significantly intertwined with China, the West still prefers to engage by increased investments, particularly in sectors where they may not wish to compete. From Cambodia’s point of view, its Cambodia’s People’s Party (CPP) seems to have shown preference for a flexible approach to foreign policy as it aims to adapt to the changing geopolitical situation in the region shaped by the competitive influences of the world’s major powers. Though the CPP’s professed foreign policy claims are based on neutrality and non-alliance enshrined in Article 53 of the Constitution, its leaning towards China is there for any observer to see. However, Manet shall find it hard to overlook or steer away from the CPP’s seven core principles – opposing force, non-support for invasions, disapproval of unlawful occupations, non-interference in domestic affairs of other nations, prohibitions of foreign military presence in Cambodia, and refusal to endorse invasions of other countries.

Manet shall have to justify if questions are raised about Chinese access to Ream naval base in southern Cambodia. It is suspected that Cambodia has granted exclusive rights to its Ream naval base to China clandestinely. According to the agreement, Cambodia shall receive a grant aid from China to renovate the port. The West is concerned that Beijing is seeking a military outpost at the Gulf of Thailand facility.[2] Though the decision on this was taken by Manet’s father, he cannot escape responsibility as this decision violates one of the CPP’s core principles.

The location of this naval base is critical as it faces the strategic Malacca Straits, which provides Beijing with a desired southern flank in the South China Sea region. Therefore, the base grants China key leverage over the vital chokepoints in the region. It will also support Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea, as well as help China to expand its maritime footprint in the greater Indian Ocean region.

Manet Visits China in September

In his first major foreign policy overdrive and not surprisingly, Manet made an official visit to China from 14-17 September, during which he signed 15 MoUs including an action plan for building the community of a shared future between China and Cambodia for 2024-2028.[3] During his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang on 15 September, Manet encouraged China for considering energy security projects, infrastructure investment and promoting the Diamond Hexagon cooperation framework, as well as pushing for the recovery of the tourism sector. Both Manet and Li promised to implement all the on-going projects as well as initiate new projects that would be mutually beneficial to both nations and peoples.

Li stressed China’s will to enhance development-strategy synergies with Cambodia, enforce current intergovernmental coordinating committee mechanisms, and upgrade cooperation on industry agriculture, the economy, and trade, in order to achieve practical results. This was the second meeting between Manet and Li in two weeks. The two met in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 6 September during the ASEAN plus China meeting.

Manet also met with Zhao Leji, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China. Manet explained to Zhao that the CPP’s victory reflects the public’s trust in the party and its president. Manet urged more exchange visits of lawmakers between the two countries’ parliaments, in order to boost legislative branch cooperation, especially among young lawmakers, which Zhao accepted. What was underlined during the discussion was the reiteration by both sides that both are excellent trustworthy friends committed to prevent external interference.

Manet at BRI forum

A third interaction with the Chinese leadership soon followed in the form of the two-day 3rd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing from 17-18 October to which Manet led a delegation. Manet reiterated Cambodia’s commitment to support the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and continued close cooperation with China.[4] Manet was accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister and first vice-chairman of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) and Foreign Minister Sok Chenda Sophea, along with several other key government officials and business leaders.

The theme of the BRF was “High-quality Belt and Road Cooperation: Together for Common Development and Prosperity”. Representatives from some 130 countries were in attendance, including a representative of the Taliban and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The conference marked the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, a vision spelt out by Xi in 2013 on visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. Today it has 152 members and has been the driving force behind power plants and railways, as well as causing controversy over "debt diplomacy."[5]

Manet delivered a keynote address on the “Digital Economy as a New Source of Growth”. He held meeting with President Xi Jinping and other members of the Chinese leadership on the sidelines to discuss cooperation under bilateral and multilateral frameworks. He also engaged in separate discussions with other foreign dignitaries, such as Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong, Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith, and several key representatives from the private sector.

India Absent

A notably absentee was India, which has never attended a forum. In fact, even before the emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct, India staunchly opposed the BRI and, along with Japan, sought to present an alternative to the initiative. India has consistently recognised the potential detrimental impact of the BRI on its national interests and the regional landscape. India’s major objection is on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through Indian territory occupied by Pakistan thus it violates India’s sovereignty. Further, the BRI aims to expand China’s sphere of influence, increase regional dependence on China, trap countries in debt and violates countries’ sovereignty. India’s views are shared by several major powers and like-minded countries over a course of a decade.

There are concerns that as the BRI focus mainly on strengthening cooperation with China could cause an inter-governmental reform crisis, or problems with the transparency of managing projects that may cause a long-term impact, especially a potential debt crisis. Cambodia may be too enthusiastic for the Chinese strategy and drum-beat the BRI projects, but it needs to be cautious that “over-reliance” on China could cause geopolitical tensions with other powers, as China has harnessed the BRI to expand its influence.

In an editorial titled “Ushering in a new chapter of China-Cambodia ironclad friendship”, on 16 October, Chinese ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian explained how over the past decade the BRI has contributed to the development and improvement of the lives of people around the world, investing in more than 3,000 projects worth about $ 1 trillion.[6]

Several Agreements Signed

While in Beijing, Manet signed several high-level cooperation documents on 17 October. Manet also met with several Chinese investors who have injected billions of dollars into Cambodia, in sectors varying from railways to satellite technology.[7] The documents included a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the third round of a joint project for productivity cooperation and Cambodia-China investment, as well as one on the implementation of mechanisms for bilateral cooperation on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Other documents include MoUs on green and low carbon investment and the development of Cambodia-China railroad cooperation.

An additional MoU was signed between the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce and China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region on the construction of a China-Cambodia industrial park. An agreement was also inked on loan concessions for the 8th phase of rural electricity connection, while protocol exchanges were agreed upon for a feasibility study on Chinese grants to repair the Preah Vihear Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Manet met with Wang Jianping, chairman of the board of directors of China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC), and encouraged him to invest in railroad connections that would cover the whole of Cambodia. Manet is keen to upgrade and modernise the Kingdom’s existing railway lines and expand links between Phnom Penh and Bavet, which shares its border with Vietnam, as well as Siem Reap and Poipet, which borders Thailand. He also suggested lines connecting to the Vietnamese border via Cambodia’s Stung Treng and Mondulkiri provinces. Wang’s has so far invested in 53 projects in Cambodia, at a total cost of $5.3 billion.

CRCC also plans to invest in three more major projects – a data management centre to support the digital government, railway connections from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and on to Poipet, and clean water projects in the provinces along the Mekong River.[8] In a separate meeting with Li Kuo, chairman of the board of directors of China Metro Group, Manet supported the company’s proposed project to develop light-rail networks in Phnom Penh, as well as Kandal and Siem Reap provinces. The China Metro Group proposed two light rail lines – one connecting the newly Siem Reap Angkor International Airport (SAI) to Siem Reap town, and another connecting Phnom Penh to the under-construction Techo International Airport (TIA) – located in neighbouring Kandal province. Other related projects are agreed to be explored that could reduce the Kingdom’s traffic burden.

Assessment

Amid all such euphoria that aims to carve out new developmental projects in Cambodia with China’s involvement, one aspect needs to be kept in mind that China is strengthening its strategic as well as economic footprint in Cambodia whose ramifications could be far-reaching. Cambodia’s stances on certain ASEAN issues are causing disunity among the bloc members. Myanmar’s case is yet another issue to bother about. The centrality of the organisation has thus come under question.

An example of how Cambodia has allowed to be sucked into the Chinese orbit was when Indonesia, the current chair of the ASEAN, proposed hosting the first-ever multilateral joint naval exercises among ASEAN states, Cambodia opposed to the idea. By rejecting the proposal, Cambodia hampered ASEAN maritime security unity, thereby aiding China in influencing member states for its global agenda.[9]

The joint ASEAN drills are scheduled for late in 2023 in the north Natuna Sea, which is a resource-rich area off Indonesia's northern coastline. The area also overlaps with the southernmost tip of Beijing's supposed expansive "nine-dash line" claim. By rejecting the proposal, Cambodia wants to protect China’s interests in South China Sea. Cambodia’s stance could jeopardise coherence amongst all ASEAN member states. The naval drill idea is laudable as it could be a major milestone in reinforcing ASEAN unity and centrality as it is a core policy of the bloc.

References

[1]Niem Chheng, “Navigating the future: Manet’s formative years offer subtle hints”, 2 August 2023, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-post-depth/navigating-future-manets-formative-years-offer-subtle-hints
[2] “China and Cambodia break ground in naval base in show of ‘iron clad’ relations”, 9 June 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/09/asia/china-cambodia-naval-base-military-intl-hnk/index.html
[3]Niem Chheng, “Official visit yields 15 new MoUs between Cambodia, China”, 16 September 2023, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/official-visit-yields-15-new-mous-between-cambodia-china
[4]Samban Chandara, “PM set to address BRI forum in Beijing, confirm closeness, 16 October 2023, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/pm-set-address-bri-forum-beijing-confirm-closeness
[5]Chris Taylor, “Reps from 130 countries descend on Beijing for Belt and Road forum”, 17 October 2023, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/china/2023/10/china-231017-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3745%2eon0ao069c5%2e3hap
[6] “Ushering in a new chapter of China-Cambodia ironclad friendship”, 16 October 2023, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/opinion/ushering-new-chapter-china-cambodia-ironclad-friendship
[7]Van Socheata and Ry Sochan, “Cambodia signs investment, development deals in China”, 17 October 2023, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/cambodia-signs-investment-development-deals-china
[8] Ibid.
[9]Monica Chansoria, “China-backed Cambodia Rejects First ASEAN Naval Drill”, Japan Forward, 25 July 2023, https://japan-forward.com/all-politics-is-global-china-backed-cambodia-rejects-first-asean-naval-drill/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202310/19/WS6530a468a31090682a5e9810.html

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
18 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us