To enhance its economic and political clout, China has made substantial inroads across Southeast Asia on the back of multi-billion-dollar infrastructure and investment deals like the one in Cambodia. This is how China will engage with the world for the foreseeable future. At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Wednesday, a political conclave held once every five years to present the leadership’s governing agenda, Xi Jinping, arguably China’s strongest ruler in decades, will solidify his rule and reinforce an expansive foreign economic platform that will shape the region for years to come.
Such future dealings abroad are unlikely to come with any pledges toward democratization attached. In Cambodia, for example, China hasn’t slowed its investments despite Hun Sen’s crackdown on democracy and basic freedom. Facing vocal challenges from opposition groups ahead of next year’s general elections, he has begun actively silencing pro-democracy institutions, expelling the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, forcing Radio Free Asia to close its Phnom Penh office, shuttering the The Cambodia Daily, jailing opposition party leader Kem Sokha on allegedly phony charges of treason and collusion with the United States, and calling for the withdrawal of Peace Corps volunteers. On Monday the National Assembly moved to redistribute all of the main opposition party’s legislative seats.
“At one time, Hun Sen had to care about what the U.S. and the EU said because he was getting critical aid from them and now he is able to get all of it from China,” Murray Hiebert, senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. With China intent to take America’s place, “it is interesting that there is considerably less focus on democracy and rights issues.”
Hun Sen’s recent moves represent an accelerated attack on fundamental rights and a blow to Cambodia’s fragile democracy. They are also a piece of a larger transformation across Southeast Asia. Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia, continues to crack down on dissent, while Thailand’s military has maintained firm control of the government since a 2014 coup, repressing opposition figures and activists in the process. As the military government of Burma continues its bloody persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, the country’s much-lauded democratic transition under Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to live up to expectations. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte continues his brutal drug war, which has claimed between 7,000 and 13,000 lives.
While these shifts towards autocracy began before last November, they have accelerated since the election of Donald Trump, who has largely offered only subdued responses to foreign crises. This is a far cry from the Obama administration’s attempted rebalancing strategy in Asia, which addressed rights concerns with vigor, encouraged the democratic transition in Burma, and spearheaded the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Trump withdrew from in January. That withdrawal, along with Trump’s distaste for multilateralism, “has set back U.S. economic interests in the region for the immediate future—a glaring development in light of the substantive advances in Chinese economic engagement,” the Sydney-based Lowy Institute published in an August report on U.S.-Sino relations in Southeast Asia.