PHNOM PENH – Accused of plotting treason
with Cambodia’s detained opposition leader, the U.S. embassy
posted a picture of a red herring on its Facebook page.
The cryptic suggestion that the accusations were false – a
mystifying reference for many Cambodians – was followed by
further posts on Monday showing how U.S. aid was helping to
preserve temples and forests.
Those posts also underscored the big difference between aid
from the United States and aid from China, whose greater support
for big ticket projects has helped allow Prime Minister Hun Sen
to brush off criticism over the arrest of election rival Kem
Not only is China vastly outspending the United States in a
country once destroyed by Cold War superpower rivalry, but its
money goes on highly visible infrastructure projects and with no
demands for political reform.
U.S. aid goes more towards social projects and trying to
build democracy – unwanted interference for the government of a
prime minister who has ruled for over 30 years.
“Taking aid doesn’t mean they can order us to do what they
want. We aren’t their ally. We aren’t their slave,” government
spokesman Phay Siphan told Reuters. “The Chinese always support
us in economic growth and they never interefere in our
The U.S. embassy made no immediate comment.
Cambodia has dismissed U.S. and Western criticism of the
Sept. 3 arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha. China has backed
“To ensure the security of Cambodia, China will cooperate
with Cambodia in all circumstances,” Wang Jiarui, vice chairman
of China’s national assembly, said in Phnom Penh last week,
according to the official Cambodian record.
The support doesn’t only run one way. China relies on
Cambodia in Southeast Asian meetings on issues such as its
claims in the South China Sea. In Cambodia, China’s military has
also gained a strategic foothold.
Figures from Cambodia’s overseas development aid database
show how important China has become.
It accounted for nearly 36 percent of $732 billion listed in
bilateral aid for 2016 – nearly four times as much as from the
United States. Most of the rest is from other Western countries,
whose protests have also been dismissed.
The disparity is even starker in investment.
China provided nearly 30 percent of investment capital in
Cambodia last year – more than Cambodians themselves. The United
States accounted for only just over three percent.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed aid cuts
have pointed to a possible 70 percent reduction in U.S.
assistance to Cambodia from 2018, according to a draft proposal.
What Cambodia gets from the United States and China is very
different. Chinese projects include roads, bridges, irrigation
systems, electrical transmission infrastructure and dams.
The list of U.S. projects is much longer, but they are much
smaller: in education, health, conservation as well as efforts
to build democracy which grate on the government.
The U.S. funded National Democratic Institute (NDI)
pro-democracy group was expelled last month and accused of
conspiring to help bring down Hun Sen – a charge rejected by the
NDI and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“The fact the government has been criticised by Western
donors over the recent crackdown just means Cambodia is becoming
more dependent on China,” said Ou Virak of the Future Forum
The United States is a much bigger export market than China,
particularly for Cambodia’s garment factories, but the United
States has not publicly suggested it could use trade to bring
pressure for democratic change.
Kem Sokha’s deputy, Mu Sochua, said aid that did not include
conditions on human rights did not serve Cambodia well.
“Cambodia needs China, it needs America, it needs democracy
to pull it out of many years of poverty,” she told Reuters.
But Cambodia depends much less on aid than it did.
This year will mark the seventh year of near 7 percent
growth or above – a fact Hun Sen often points to in a country he
took over after the devastating “killing fields” genocide
committed by the Khmer Rouge, in which he was once a commander.
World Bank figures show overseas development assistance fell
from over 120 percent of central government expenditure in 2002
to barely 32 percent in 2015. Per capita gross domestic product
rose from less than $340 in 2002 to nearly $1,300 last year.
Dismissing U.S. interference in a speech on Monday, Hun Sen
threatened a possible ban on the opposition party.
Then he took a plane for Beijing where he said he would seek
money for the health sector – an area dominated by Western
donors until now.