PM Hun Sen plays high politics

Kavi Chongkittavorn


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s quick stopover in Beijing earlier this month was a shrewd diplomatic move aimed at further consolidating his personal rapport  with Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as overall Cambodia-China relations. He also called on Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Machiavelli had nothing on Hun Sen when it comes to realpolitik and symbolism. His comments and behavior have been unconventional to say the least and he regularly draws both flak and praise for his actions. Before departing for Seoul, South Korea, he told media in Phnom Penh that he would like to visit the 23 Cambodian students in Wuhan as he was worried about their condition. But Beijing told him to hold off the trip to Wuhan because it is under strict quarantine. He then decided to go to Beijing instead. At the same time, he also expressed the confidence that the Chinese government would provide adequate medical protection and care to fight against the coronavirus.

So far, only Cambodia and Thailand have not imposed any restrictions on incoming Chinese tourists holding bookings in their respective countries. These two countries have benefitted tremendously from the influx of Chinese tourists in recent years. Cambodia has been trying to increase the numbers from over a million a year to two-and-a-half million  this year. But there, as elsewhere, the outbreak of the coronavirus threatens to lower the number of visiting Chinese tourists.

Last year, about 10.6 million Chinese visited Thailand. Before the outbreak of coronavirus, Tourism Authority of Thailand was confident that at least 12 million Chinese would visit in 2020.

In Beijing, Hun Sen met up with both Xi and Li to further strengthen bilateral relations. Last year, investment by China made up 70 per cent of all money coming into Cambodia. Hun Sen wants to ensure relations with China remain solid as he is prepares for an election next year. It will be a decisive year for his political career as he intends to stay on as Cambodia’s leader for the fourth decad

At this juncture, Cambodia is facing continued pressure from the EU, which has threatened to halt the special preferential treatment, known as Everything But Arms, for its garment exports to the EU. The textile industry in Cambodia employs more than 800,000 workers. Brussels will have to decide soon whether to continue with the EBA measure.

The EU has asked Cambodia to allow politicians from opposition parties to have some political space and allow more freedom of speech. So far, Hun Sen has been adamant that no outsider should interfere in his country’s political situation.

China has been the only country to have provided all-round support to Hun Sen.  After the United Nations ended its mission Cambodian in 1992 following the general election, Cambodia relied on a consortium of foreign assistance from the West. Faced with mounting criticism from aid donors, Hun Sen began to court China in 2000 as an exit strategy.  China, which supported the anti-Phnom Penh government during the 1978-1992 Cambodian conflict, understood the fast-changing nature of Cambodian politics and decided to help Hun Sen in all his endeavors.


At the moment, China is Cambodia’s six largest export market, accounting for 6.3 percent of all exports, while China is the number one importer of Cambodian products, accounting for 40 percent of all imports.

China was Cambodia’s largest investor. In 2017 and 2018, China invested around 23 per cent and 26 per cent of the total US$3.1 billion respectively. The second largest investment was the combined investment from all ASEAN members states, at 22 percent and 25 per cent in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Therefore, Hun Sen’s latest sojourn to China should be seen as a way of guaranteeing that China would not abandon him if the EU decides to halt the EBA policy. From Beijing’s viewpoint, Cambodia has already proven to be is an important ally in the schemes of all things regional both within the Asean and international context.


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