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‘Anti-Americanism’ and ‘Chinanisation’ in Cambodia

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The US and China have played different roles in Cambodia. Reuters

Dear Sir,

These two terminologies have become popular in describing Cambodia these days. I will explain why these two concepts are misleading.

With Prime Minister Hun Sen heating up his rhetoric against the US and the recent arrest of opposition party leader Kem Sokha, who claimed that he has been groomed by the US since 1993, “anti-Americanism” may sound justifiable.

But is it really so? Does the average Cambodian people hate Americans to the level that we can describe it as “anti-American sentiment”? Does this pose a threat to the level that the US embassy has to alert its people?

The usage of the word “anti-Americanism” or raising alerts about such trends is very misleading and represents a clear lack of understanding of the Cambodian national context and national interest. I will make an argument by looking at the issue from people and the government level.

For the people level, anti-American sentiment can only be used in the level of antagonism like that of the Chinese against the Japanese or Koreans against Japanese, or resenting sentiment that one citizen normally bears against historical foes, especially neighbouring countries.

The Japanese used to misunderstand Cambodia about the so-called anti-Japanese sentiment because they thought all Asian people had this mindset against their past invasions. But the fact is Cambodian people never held a grudge against Japanese people, even if they never provided any financial assistance to Cambodia. If you ask senior people, you can hear many stories that Cambodian peasants helped hide French soldiers when the Japanese came to Cambodia during World War II, and they also helped hide Japanese soldiers from the French when the colonialists returned to power after the war.

The fact is the average Cambodian has never had any anti-foreigner sentiment except for the neighbouring countries due to a history of invasion. Like other countries in the world, neighbouring countries often hold historical resentment against each other for the fact that only neighbouring countries would physically or geographically pose any immediate threat to territorial existence.

Even at government level, it is not difficult to understand that Cambodia has no interest in consolidating anti-Americanism. The government’s rhetoric stemmed from differences in policy implementation and orientations, which are normal because we don’t expect the US and Cambodian governments to see eye to eye on every issue. These differences can be sorted out at government level in time.

Why would a small country like Cambodia have to confront a superpower that has a grip on billions of dollars of export markets or the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of garment workers? The answer is definitely a “no”. It is far too obvious for everyone to understand.

It is not about the government hating America or it does not want to make friends with America. What the government is trying to do right now is understandably based on matters of principles and core national interests that every countries in the world would do the same.

Those principles are “sovereignty” and “independence”. Cambodia’s foreign minister rightly stated in his address to the United Nations General Assembly that “in what country, would such behaviour of a foreign government be tolerated?” The US has never been clear in regards to these core national interests of Cambodia. Maybe their words did, but their actions have been vague.

Now on the Chinanisation of Cambodia. This concept is not remote from anti-Americanism. It is another side of the coin. Media or pundits tend to make conclusions that “Cambodia is not on good terms with the US because it is close with China”, “Cambodia is suppressing human rights and democracy because it can depend on China if other countries impose sanctions”, “Cambodia is a proxy of China in the South China Sea issue and it receives a lot of assistance and investment in reward” etc.

These are the common arguments made about Cambodia’s overdependence on China or a suggestion on a predominant control of China over Cambodia ranging from domestic politics to the economy and foreign policies.

Such descriptions represents an ignorance of Cambodia’s national context and interest, regional economic trends and the global geopolitical landscape.

The overdependence theory stemmed from the belief of Cambodia’s increased economic interest from China. However, this is squarely a misperception, or rather a myth.

First of all, the increase of China’s investment is a regional trend and is not limited to Cambodia alone. Credit Suisse Group defied the popular belief that Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam are the main recipients of Chinese FDI with data proving the recent jump in flows in fact took place in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Chinese FDI in the six largest economies in Asean was estimated at about $16 billion last year. But the total investment capital from China to Cambodia was about $14.7 billion in the timespan of 22 years from 1994 to 2016.

Secondly, different from the conventional belief, countries who are at odds with China are in fact the latter’s largest trading partners with a very significant trade volume. For instance, two-way trade between Vietnam and China hit $ 71.9 billion last year. China is Singapore’s largest trade partner, with two-way trade reaching $121.5 billion in 2014. If we look at Cambodia, the figure stood at meagre $ 4.8 billion last year.

Indeed, Cambodia has special relations with China owing to historical ties and strategic interests, but Cambodia’s trade and investment relations with China is minimal if compared to other Asean countries to be described as “over-dependence”.

Cambodia’s national interests are territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence and economic development. If analysts put these concepts into perspective, it is not difficult to understand Cambodia’s behaviour with China vis-à-vis the US. We can clearly say that China’s approaches bode well with Cambodia’s national interests.

Countries act on national interests. The US has strategic interests with Vietnam despite their past bloody war, resentment and the huge gap of values in terms of democracy and human rights. Despite differences on the political system and governance, “Made in China” products are still flooding the US and EU supporting good livelihoods of their people with cheap commodities and consumption.

These are all about national and geopolitical strategic interests.

Suggestions that Cambodia reduce its economic interaction with China to avoid overdependence is absurd. Vietnam and Singapore are not on good terms with China. Still, they try to maintain good economic relations with China.

A sound policy advice should focus more on how Cambodia could direct the capital inflows, stemming from its good bilateral relations with China, to effectively pump up its national development strategies. For instance, a wise strategist would find themselves advising how Cambodia could use its good ties with China to leverage support for its Rectangular Strategy, Industrial Development Policy and Cambodia Trade Integration Strategy, etc.

Another way is the suggestion on how Cambodia could find alternative economic leverage to balance China’s influence. Thailand is going everywhere trying to find support for its Eastern Economic Corridor, although some countries do not support its political and foreign policy orientation. As such, there is no reason for Cambodia to act differently.

Concerns are also being raised about the possible increase of unregulated Chinese activity in Sihanoukville province. But this is totally a domestic issue of law enforcement in Cambodia, which has a different dimension from foreign policy. If there are Chinese gangsters, Cambodia can simply arrest them. There is no government in this world that support gangsters.

Soun Nimeth,

Cambodian analyst,

Phnom Penh

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