If it wasn’t already clear, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday let an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos know how he really felt about former U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration’s “pivot” to Asia.
“I say [this] because today Obama is leaving his position. The policies toward Asia, Asia-Pacific of President Mr. Obama has brought complications to the Asian region,” he said at a panel discussion titled “Manufacturing Identity: Is ASEAN a Community Yet?”
“I honestly say that I am unhappy to criticize the [U.S] policy of returning to Asia and I praise the policy of the new President Duterte of the Philippines,” he said, an apparent reference to Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement in October that he was “separating” from the U.S. to join China and Russia in a new world order.
Mr. Hun Sen said he felt particularly wounded that Cambodia had drawn so much criticism for positions he had taken regarding the South China Sea, having scuttled efforts by other Asean members to present a united front against China’s territorial claims in the disputed sea.
“This conflict, there was interference from outsiders. If we let involved countries discuss together I think it is better,” he said. “I said like that on purpose to protect the relationship between Asean and China as there is very big trade and interest for all involved.”
It is on this last point—defending China’s interests in the name of regional economic success—that Mr. Hun Sen will likely find himself at odds with U.S. President Donald Trump, of whom he was an outspoken supporter before the November election.
Mr. Trump and his secretary of state nominee, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, have talked of forcing China to stop its island building in the South China Sea and even blocking its access to those islands; imposing protectionist trade measures against Chinese goods and services; and restoring relations with Taiwan—an affront to Beijing’s keystone One China policy.
The payoff for Southeast Asian allies of China, however, may be that the U.S. retreats from attempts to promote human rights and democracy abroad, a policy that has long been a thorn in the side of Mr. Hun Sen, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I don’t know for sure, but I would expect that the pressure on the South China Sea would be counterbalanced by less pressure on Hun Sen on human rights issues under this U.S., and that overall Hun Sen would see this trade as a relatively favorable trade off for him,” Mr. Kurlantzick said in an email.
“And if other Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines are not protesting too much over growing US-China tensions in the South China Sea, then that puts Hun Sen in a less difficult position,” he added. “Of course, Vietnam will push back on South China Sea issues, so Hun Sen would be in a somewhat difficult situation, but overall I would think this new administration would redound to his benefit.”
As opposed to 2012, when Phnom Penh was something of an outlier in Asean for its diplomatic alignment with Beijing, the geopolitical landscape in the region has seen a brisk Sino-shift, noted Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor and Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“President Duterte has put the Philippines’ policy into reverse. Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia is currying favour with Beijing. And Vietnam has just sent its party leader to Beijing to seek reassurances that China will act towards Vietnam with restraint,” Mr. Thayer said in an email.
“Cambodia would find itself in good company in decrying U.S. assertiveness and its threat to regional stability,” he said, adding that Mr. Trump’s administration would likely see the region as having little to no role in achieving its foreign policy priorities.
“The Trump Administration will not give priority to Southeast Asia let alone Cambodia,” he said, predicting that it would focus on defeating the Islamic State militant group, improving relations with Russia and renegotiating terms of trade and currency valuation with China.
“Taiwan not Southeast Asia is the main leverage point for Trump’s future relations with China. Trump is a realist when assessing power relations, Cambodia is unlikely to be on his radar screen,” Mr. Thayer added.
Cambodia surprised many last week when it announced the cancellation of Angkor Sentinel military exercises with the U.S. for the next two years, just weeks after hosting 500 Chinese soldiers for the largest such exercise in decades.
Analysts said the decision—supposedly made to free up soldiers to help in a crackdown on drugs and to ensure security in upcoming elections—was almost certainly meant to show its growing allegiance to China.
“Cambodia’s cancellation is par for the new course of regional geopolitics where China is winning in Southeast Asia,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said in an email.
“Its timing also suggests an early pre-inauguration shot across the bow in view of Trump’s tough-talking rhetoric,” he added. “China will flex this kind of muscle again through its client allies and the onus will be on the US to respond.”
John Ciorciari, director of the International Policy Center at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said Cambodia would like to remain engaged with the U.S., which continues to be one of its top importers of garments and footwear, sectors that make up 80 percent of Cambodia’s exports. But only as long Cambodia was able to maintain China’s favor.
“Hun Sen would rather avoid a rupture with Washington and return to the frosty relations and sanctions of the late 1990s. But if Sino-American tension rises, he will bend further toward Beijing, the partner that does most to secure his position in power,” Mr. Ciorciari said in an email.
“China will provide more economic and military aid in forms that buttress the power of the CPP,” he added. “Cambodia will reciprocate with preferential access to resources, support in international forums, and perhaps with expanded naval access at Kampong Sam [Preah Sihanouk province]. This may benefit Cambodia’s leaders but will back the country further into a diplomatic corner and make domestic political reform even more challenging.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter, Ben Paviour and Khuon Narim)
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