The Quiet Dragon: Unravelling Chinese Influence Operations in Cambodia

Out of all the ASEAN member states, Cambodia has proved the most willing to align its interests with the People’s Republic of China. When the country recently held the position of ASEAN chair in 2022, they blocked the use of language implying that China was taking aggressive action in the South China Sea, resulting in no consensus on the region being reached. For the first time in it’s over 45 years of history, ASEAN failed to issue a communiqué at the conclusion of its annual meeting in Cambodia. Its ten members reach a stalemate over China’s baseless claims in the South China Sea, and member countries disagree over whether to include the territorial issue in the joint statement. This diplomatic freeze follows an ongoing maritime standoff between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal, and is widely seen as a failure for the regional body. Some observers view China’s influence on Cambodia, the 2012 rotating chair of the conference and again in 2022, as having caused the exclusion of the Scarborough Shoal and EEZ issues[i] from the text, resulting in an impasse.

Chinese influence in ASEAN through BRI:

Cambodian Prime Minister of Chinese heritage, Hun Sen, who has ruled for 35 years, was supported by Vietnam from the late 1970s when he was part of the rebel army that helped overthrow the China-backed Khmer Rouge. He also enjoyed robust support from Hanoi through the 1980s, when Hun Sen’s government was embargoed by China, the United States, and their partners in ASEAN. In recent years, however, the wheel has turned, and Hun Sen become a good friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Underscoring the closeness of their relationship, Hun Sen became the first foreign leader to visit Xi in China amid the coronavirus pandemic. He referred[ii] to Cambodia and China as “steadfast friends.”

Hun Sen has taken his loyalty to China a step further by echoing[iii] Beijing’s revisionist history on Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge. He now omits any talk of Chinese transgressions, which must be particularly galling to Vietnam; Hanoi clearly no longer has its man in Cambodia. In 2009, Phnom Penh made a decision to deport twenty Uyghur refugees to China, an action which was met with strong condemnation by human rights groups[iv]. In July 2019, UN ambassadors of 37 countries, including Cambodia, have signed a joint letter to the UNHRC defending China’s treatment of Uyghurs[v] and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.

Moreover, in mid-October 2020, Hun Sen’s regime welcomed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the two sides inked[vi] a new free trade agreement, which was negotiated in less than a year. China is already Cambodia’s largest aid donor and investor as well as its top trade partner. Cambodia is also an active[vii] participant in BRI to the tune of at least $5.3 billion, and Phnom Penh is “benefiting” in the form of infrastructure projects including roads, bridges, airports, railways, hydropower dams[viii], and special economic zones (SEZs). After three years of Chinese-led construction work, Cambodia’s very first toll expressway[ix] has opened for business in late 2022, the project symbolizing the deepening economic ties between the Southeast Asian nation and Beijing. Costing roughly $2 billion to construct, the expressway stretches 190 kilometres between Phnom Penh, the capital, and the port city of Sihanoukville[x], which became a Chinese hub for cybercrimes, gambling, human organ harvesting and many other heinous crimes.

In other areas of the world, such as Sri Lanka, Beijing has leveraged BRI projects for geopolitical gain once the recipient country realizes it cannot afford the program. Hun Sen dismisses[xi] these concerns for Cambodia even though some observers believe[xii] Phnom Penh has already relinquished some of its sovereignty due to BRI deals, especially within Chinese-owned SEZs. Even Cambodian academicians are dancing to the tunes of Chinese charm offensive activities[xiii] with both calling for building a “community for shared future[xiv] 人类命运共同体”.

Although Hun Sen has denied reports[xv] that China is planning to build a naval and air base at Ream and Dara Sakor, respectively, Beijing is clearly involved in financing infrastructure construction at these locations, which may give it preferential access to them in the future. Further fuelling speculation, Cambodia in September 2021 bulldozed[xvi] U.S. facilities at Ream without notifying Washington, strongly suggesting that Phnom Penh attempted[xvii] to do it secretly. Commercial imagery indicates[xviii] that runways at Dara Sakor can accommodate Chinese military aircraft. To add to Vietnamese concerns, China and Cambodia have continued holding[xix] joint military exercises in spite of the pandemic, highlighting the importance each side attaches to these engagements. If Beijing were to obtain any level of access to Ream or Dara Sakor along the Gulf of Thailand, or, in a worst-case scenario, Beijing suddenly owned and operated the bases, this would severely threaten Vietnam’s western flank. Coupled with Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, Hanoi would increasingly feel the pressure of geostrategic encirclement. Phnom Penh also welcomed Chinese construction of its military intuitions and regular dispatches its officer cadets to China for training[xx].

Chinese impact on damming Mekong:

The Tonle Sap in Cambodia, which takes its name from a tributary that connects it to the Mekong River, is the world’s largest inland fishery[xxi] – more fish are usually caught here than in any other lake on Earth. Known as the beating heart of Mekong, it has supported generations of fishermen in this part of Cambodia. Studies suggests an alarming decline in fish populations in the lower Mekong, including the Tonle Sap. Scientists across the world[xxii] recently analysed 110 fish species over 17 years and found their numbers had dropped by more than 87%. The giant catfish, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, and revered by some locals, is believed to be on the verge of extinction – while the striped catfish, once a staple in countries along the Mekong, is now endangered. The fish is so important in Cambodian culture that the currency is named after it.

Hydropower has proved unreliable for Cambodia[xxiii] because of recent water shortages and low river levels, caused by Chinese damming Mekong upstream. Even after importing electricity from neighbouring Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, power outages in Cambodian urban areas are common. The dams upstream by China and Chinese builders in Laos are not just trapping water, but also rich sediment, according to several studies, including one by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), and that is starving the Mekong of essential nutrients. The waters of the Mekong are muddy brown not because of dirt, but because of nutrients that the river picks up on its journey south. Fish and farmlands all the way to Vietnam need that sediment not just to survive, but to thrive.

The hegemonic riparian acts by China upstream is now fuelling determination among younger generations of Cambodians. They want to save the Mekong, or at least protect the river that is called “the mother of water” in the many languages spoken along its banks. They cannot solve climate change, nor can they prevent dams being built upstream in Laos or China. However, they can try to save the fish from illegal and unregulated fishing – especially the fish that do make it downstream to the unique flooded forest habitats in the north of Cambodia. These protected forests have adapted over hundreds of years to the two seasons – months of dry weather followed by months of monsoon rain. However, the gush of water from upstream dams during the dry season[xxiv] gives the forest no time to dry out. When this happens, fungi grow in the damp conditions, causing dry rot. This, in turn, has an impact on the fish – because the submerged yet healthy roots are a safe haven for fish to spawn. The ecosystem around the roots also provides food for the fish.

With regional cooperation considered essential to changing policies, some people are looking towards MRC to take on a stronger role. The organisation has long been seen as politically weak, because it only includes four of the basin countries and not China, which has set up its own commission, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (The Mekong is called Lancang in China). The accelerating pace of change, coupled with cumulative impacts of transboundary stressors, and the impending impacts of climate change, point to a fear that the Mekong River, which is the lifeblood of most of Southeast Asia, will gradually lose function until it no longer supports the huge diversity of wildlife and millions of people that depend on it.

Chinese Criminal Activities in Cambodia:

Cambodia has become so popular for Chinese anti-fraud operations that in 2019 Chinese police moved to set up a joint law enforcement office with its Cambodian counterparts in the capital of Phnom Penh. In 2021, at least 610 Chinese nationals suspected of online fraud were repatriated to China: none of them via formal extradition procedures, but simply deported with the direct cooperation from the Cambodian authorities. Cambodia is one of many countries around Asia with a ratified bilateral extradition treaty[xxv] with China, but these are rarely – or in some cases, never – used as authorities instead rely on the faster, smoother and easier method of having people deported – thus depriving them of any chance of due process to fight accusations of criminal behaviour. Since the ratification of the extradition agreement, Cambodia has been involved in several highly problematic extradition and disguised extradition cases to China.

Cambodia has also extradited Taiwanese nationals to China on several occasions, despite objections from Taipei. On several occasions, Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice has unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and Cambodian officials in efforts to prevent the extradition of their nationals from Cambodia to China. Taiwan does not have formal diplomatic relations with Cambodia and the Cambodia – China Extradition Agreement has been used by China to also cover the apprehension and extradition of Taiwanese nationals, often without any consultation or prior notification to Taiwanese ministries.

Similar stories of often young people being lured to other countries only to be held hostage and forced to engage in online scams are not limited to Cambodia. It is well depicted in the recent Chinese blockbuster crime thriller[xxvi] No More Bets 孤注一掷[xxvii] (2023). This movie received immense attention from Chinese tourists to an extent that many vowed to never visit[xxviii] Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in future. As a damage control measure, Phnom Penh[xxix] and Naypyidaw[xxx] banned release of this hit Chinese film in their territories. Myanmar’s Consul-General in Nanning, China, U Kyaw Soe Thein, met with the Director of the Foreign Office of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Lian Yin, on 26 Sep 2023 discussed the film’s role in “hurting” Myanmar’s reputation in China[xxxi].

Conclusion: The disturbing extent of Chinese influence in Cambodia’s economic development through MRI, its “friendship” activities in cooperation with Phnom Penh’s military, aggressive riparian acts through unsustainable dam building, coupled with a changing climate, will continue to alter the course of the Mekong River – and the lives of Cambodians who live along it. The fate of the river may depend on the resilience of the people it supports. And how far they are willing to go to defend it – and to restore that famous might to the Mekong is a tough question to predict, ponder and resolve. In addition to these, the increased resurgence of Chinese cultural and economic activity in 21st-century Cambodia has triggered distrust, resentment, and anti-Chinese sentiment among the poorer indigenous Khmer majority[xxxii], many of whom eke out a rudimentary daily living engaging in rural agrarian rice peasantry or fishing in stark socioeconomic contrast to their modern, wealthier, and cosmopolitan middle-class Chinese counterparts.

































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