Cambodia: holding our noses for the greater good

Cambodia: holding our noses for the greater good
© JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on an agreement between Cambodia and China to let Beijing use the Ream naval base in Sihanoukville, Southeastern Cambodia. Despite vehement denials by Beijing and Phnom Penh that remind us of Shakespeare’s line that “the lady doth protest too much,” let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the conclusions in the article have merit. 

What is the United States prepared to do? The answer, not surprisingly, is not much. 

Senate bill, S-1468, the “Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment Act,” is the latest in a long list of unsuccessful U.S. attempts to force democracy onto a regime that sees it as an existential threat, a familiar pattern of trying to shame Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen into complying with policies that go against his own political interests. We seem determined to appear feckless to the Cambodian people we arguably seek to champion. 

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Worse than that, such efforts have the effect of pushing Cambodia even closer to Beijing, locking it into its orbit.  

But there might be another way to engage Cambodia and pursue our interests in the region. It’s a course of action that may well be applicable to other geopolitical inflection points along the archipelago of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative.

The Trump administration has demonstrated a troubling penchant for cozying up to authoritarian regimes at the expense of our long-standing alliances with democracies. Cambodia presents a case where this might actually lead to a breakthrough. Hun Sen’s “comfort zone” is playing off larger powers against one another. This is the terrible reality that smaller countries such as Cambodia find themselves in. 

The U.S. has a tendency to insist that allies and partners choose between working with us and working with our adversaries or competitors. But this “us or them” diplomacy is anathema to small or vulnerable states that fear that leaning too much in one direction will mean giving up any meaningful leverage and freedom of independent maneuverability. Hun Sen is thus extremely uncomfortable with a geopolitical situation in which he cannot play Beijing off against Washington. If we want to be clear-eyed, we are essentially giving him no choice in the matter.

A well-connected academic in Cambodia once told me that Hun Sen preferred to have a more robust and credible opposition within Cambodia so as to force him to be more responsive to Cambodian voters at the expense of the corrupt interests he is beholden to. And in recent years, these officials are increasingly being captured by China in pursuing China’s interests through investments and side-payments, leaving Hun Sen even less wiggle room. 

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A more pragmatic engagement strategy on the part of the U.S. would provide Hun Sen with the leverage necessary to keep Beijing at greater arm’s length and conceivably allow greater U.S. influence in a region of the world where Cambodia, despite its small size, is a key pivot point.  But this would require a somewhat riskier political strategy on the part of the U.S. to work with a dictator rather than shaming him into compliance in a way that is contrary to his own political incentives.

Such a path forward would involve holding our noses and injecting a bit more realpolitik into our relations with Cambodia. This would be less an example of “the ends justifying the means” and more of an attempt to find effective, limited short-term forms of engagement – providing incentives for Hun Sen to consider courses of action – that would ultimately have a better chance of achieving the ultimate goal of greater accountability and by extension, increase the chances of moving toward a path of some sort of political liberalization.

And those who think that we can simply push Hun Sen out of the picture and replace him with an Aung San Suu Kyi need to get serious. He has held some degree of power in Cambodia for 40 years; an immediate power vacuum could be devastating to a country with such a fragile political and electoral infrastructure that has not been able to develop for more than a generation.

The question becomes, do we want to feel better about ourselves? Or do we want to actually do the hard work to move Cambodia, and other potential partners, in a direction that is beneficial to its people and advance U.S. interests in the region?

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and the director of China studies and director of SAIS China at the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Washington.