An unholy alliance

April 1975. The Khmer Rouge celebrate as they enter Phnom Penh. Source: Flickr

Cambodia’s success in blocking a united Asean approach to the South China Sea dispute after the recent foreign ministers’ meeting in Laos should come as no surprise.

China and Cambodia have a murky history, which has often failed to acknowledge political niceties, not least Mao Zedong’s enthusiastic backing for Pol Pot.

China’s ties deepen by the day, partly because of the influx of Chinese workers who have numbered between 50,000 and 300,000 in recent years, although no one is keeping track.

The inability of Asean to react to a dispute affecting half of its members just days after a UN-backed court entirely backed their claims, raises wider questions about what use the 10-member bloc is and why it is so supine in the face its northern neighbour.

A few Cambodian historians are calling for Beijing to acknowledge its role in one of the world’s worst post-1945 slaughters.

In the 1970s, Mao wanted a third-world client state to challenge the puppet regimes of the US and the Soviet Union. He settled on Cambodia. “To regard itself as rising power, China needed that type of accessory. Without China’s assistance, the Khmer Rouge regime would not have lasted a week,” said Andrew Mertha, an Asia-Pacific specialist at Cornell University. Beijing provided at least 90 per cent of the foreign aid given to the Khmer Rouge, including food, construction equipment and military hardware. While 1 to 2 million Cambodians were butchered, Chinese engineers and military advisers continued to train their fellow communists.

In 2010, the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia, Zhang Jinfeng, claimed the support for the Khmer Rouge only amounted to “food, hoes and scythes”.

However, Youk Chhang, a survivor of the regime and head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said: “Chinese advisers were there with the prison guards and all the way to the top leader. China has never admitted or apologised for this.”

And China remains Cambodia’s principal ally.

Its Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon last week defended his position on the South China Sea dispute, denying that his opposition to a joint Asean communiqué in support of the Philippines was tied to large Chinese loans and grants.

Most of Asean wanted a statement condemning Chinese maritime advances and backing July’s verdict by the Court of Arbitration at The Hague in favour of the Philippines.

During the summits in Laos, other foreign ministries said Cambodia blocked any potential statements, sticking to Beijing’s position that the disputes should be settled bilaterally.

However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said it was Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay who insisted that the dispute should be handled bilaterally.

“So the foreign minister of the Philippines itself decided to remove and take out the issue of the verdict by the Court of Arbitration from the … statement,” Sounry said.

Sokhon added that The Hague’s decision did nothing but increase animosity between both sides.

“Cambodia had a good purpose at heart to avoid serious tension, but [we] have been blamed for blocking the statement,” he told the media.

Many observers claim Phonm Penh’s stance amounts to an open acceptance of Chinese aid in exchange for support within Asean.

“We made sure the relationship between Asean and China avoided breaking because of the dispute between the two countries. We have rescued this relationship,” Sokhon said.

Cambodia has no claim to the sea but is always keen to get involved in the tensions. It famously scuppered a 2012 attempt to issue a similar statement.

But Sokhon claimed Cambodia worked as a conduit between Beijing and Manila, opening channels between both sides.

In July, China approved a US$600 million grant to Cambodia for “electoral processes, health, education, clean water and wells”, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

National Assembly President Heng Samrin has been in Beijing partly to ask Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, to fund construction of a 12-storey administrative building at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh.

Samrin also posted on Facebook that an agricultural conglomerate from Quangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region would invest in banana plantations in Cambodia.

Peng Qinhua, Communist Party leader of the Quangxi Zhuang region, is also set to invest in Cambodian rice mills.

From a wider perspective, other regional groupings have been more politically assertive than fumbling Asean.

The African Union automatically suspends a member that goes through unconstitutional power changes and gives it six months to return to legitimate government. Coups are normally condemned and sanctions imposed, as in Mauritania in 2008. The Organisation of American States can play a mediating role during constitutional crises, as in Venezuela in 2002. Contrast this with the resounding silence after the 2006 and 2014 Thai coups.

Statements on other members’ internal affairs do not appear from Asean, which in 2008 failed to convince Myanmar’s military rulers to open up to international relief operations after the devastating Cyclone Nargis because of the junta’s fears about political reform.

In Latin America, an active network of think tanks and civil society organisations, supported by democratic nations like Uruguay and Chile, have created a democratic charter and continue to agitate for reform. Although the African Union is filled with dictators, the organisation is surprisingly progressive.

Asean, meanwhile, is handicapped by its tiny secretariat with around 300 staff, weak civil society organisations and few democratic governments.

“Severe repression by Asean and its member states, ranging from tactics of sabotaging people’s forums to choking international funding to outright intimidation, also do not help the progressive causes of civil society. Institutional mechanisms for civil society participation are still virtually non-existent,” writes Kristoffer Daniel Li of the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

As ever, Asean retains its role as a big economic player but a political worm.