Kerry aims to woo Cambodia away from China

Kerry is in the region to prepare for the US-Asean summit in Sunnylands, California, next month. Source: Wikimedia

US Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Laos and Cambodia, which analysts have seen as part of a broader push by Washington to improve its Asean relations and counterbalance China’s rising influence.

Kerry is scheduled to meet Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on January 26, civil society representatives and the embattled opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Kerry first visited Laos, which took over the chair of Asean from Malaysia, heads to China after Cambodia.

The US-Asean summit in Sunnylands, California, next month will be Hun Sen’s first official visit to the USA after more than three decades in power.

“The US is paying close attention to Asean, particularly the Mekong Region,” said Chheang Vannarith, an academic at the University of Leeds in the UK, adding that Cambodia and Laos were perceived as strategic Chinese allies in Washington.

“The US hopes that it can effectively engage and support Cambodia to stay neutral and independent, or in other words, not to be [too] strongly under China’s sphere of influence,” he said.

In Cambodia, Beijing has contributed huge loans for large-scale infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges and hydropower dams.

There has also been strong Chinese investment in the real estate and agribusiness sectors.

“These high-level meetings present an opportunity to press Asean leaders on unfulfilled human rights promises,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysia MP and the chairman of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights. “It’s also important to recognise the concerning political trajectory across the region: democracy has taken a serious hit, and the people of Asean – including the individuals we represent in parliaments throughout Southeast Asia – are struggling to be heard.”

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, Chinese backing helped avoid the clean governance demands of other donor governments, including the US, that have backed reconstruction efforts in the war-torn country since the early 1990s.

Hun Sen said of the Chinese in 2009: “They build bridges and roads and there are no complicated conditions.”

Phnom Penh backed Beijing in late 2009 when it deported 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers back to China, in defiance of requests from human rights groups. In July 2012, Cambodia sided with China over its territorial claims to the South China Sea at an Asean summit, arguing that disputes should be dealt with bilaterally rather than through the 10-member bloc.

Cambodia is a founding member of Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, making an US$62.3 million investment.

Meanwhile, Washington has expressed concern about the Hun Sen government’s suppression of human rights, with a vocal Cambodian diaspora in the US drawing attention to the issue and funding opposition groups.