Cambodia welcomes Westerdam at its port in shrewd realpolitik move

After being rejected by five other countries, Holland America Line vessel the ‘Westerdam’ has finally docked in Cambodia yesterday (Feb 14).

The 2,257 passengers and crew on board the cruise were all smiles as Cambodia’s authoritarian leader Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed them with roses at the port of Sihanoukville. 

MS Westerdam had been on a 14-day cruise around East Asia, starting in Hong Kong on Feb 1 with Yokohama, Japan as a final destination. 

The cruise ship was previously barred from docking at Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Guam amid escalating fears worldwide of Covid-19. The coronavirus has infected more than 66,000 and killed more than 1,500 people in China. 

While some 20 passengers reported having fever and tummy aches, tests for the virus done at Phnom Penh’s Pasteur Institute came back negative. No one on board the cruise had the virus. 

By contrast, Diamond Princess – another cruise ship – is being quarantined in Yokohama after more than 200 passengers tested positive for the virus. It is currently the largest Covid-19 cluster outside of China. 

PM Hun Sen was quick to capitalise on Cambodia’s boost in international reputation by emphasising that his country “pays more attention to human rights … we respect the rights of the more than 2,000 people on the boat.”

“I want to inform Cambodians and the world that I coming here even for a short time means this is no time for discrimination and to be scared, but a time for everyone to be in solidarity to solve the problems we are facing now,” added PM Hun Sen, who is known to be pro-China. 

US Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy lauded the Southeast Asian country’s generosity on Twitter, calling the great news “heartwarming sights … with Cambodian hospitality on full display.”

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Ghebreyesus chimed in, saying that it was “an example of the international solidarity we have consistently been calling for.”

Unlike any of its Asian peers, Cambodia has not imposed a ban on direct flights to the country from China. In fact, it welcomed up to 3,000 Chinese nationals from Wuhan shortly after the outbreak and before Chinese authorities locked the city down. 

To date, the country has only one confirmed case of Covid-19 – a 60-year-old Chinese national who boarded his flight from Wuhan together with his family last month. He remains in quarantine in Sihanoukville. 

PM Hun Sen – whose political party swept 2018 elections in what critics describe as elections that were neither free nor fair – may be adopting a contrarian approach to the outbreak in what has been described as a ‘shrewd example of realpolitik’. 

The tiny Southeast Asian nation is far more reliant on China than any of its ASEAN counterparts. 

China is Cambodia’s largest investor, pumping in more than US$3 billion in 2018. Last year, it pledged US$ 600 million in aid to last until next year, while promising to buy 400,000 tonnes of rice from Cambodia. Bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to exceed US$10 billion by 2023. 

The West on the other hand, has had less cosy relations with the authoritarian state. 

US-Cambodia relations have frayed over the years, with recent sanctions imposed on two businessmen for corruption, logging, and human rights violations. 

Meanwhile, the European Union is mulling over whether or not to withdraw preferential tariff privileges, which will hurt Cambodia’s garment economy. 

“We don’t have wealth like a rich country but we have sympathy for the passengers stranded on the ship,” PM Hun Sen observed when welcoming passengers from WS Westerdam. “If Cambodia did not allow this ship to dock here, where should this ship go?”

Indeed, opening the nation’s doors to China and allowing a cruise ship with an American majority to disembark could very well be more than a gesture of goodwill on PM Hun Sen’s part.  

PM Hun Sen has been in power for the past 35 years. Photo from World Economic Forum – Samdach Akkak Moha Sena Padey Dekjo on Wikimedia.