Cambodia’s veiled criticism of Chinese vaccines hints at Hun Sen’s foreign policy plans

Photo: Governo do Estado de São Paulo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is unclear if Cambodia’s apparent criticism of Chinese coronavirus vaccines is meant to refute the country’s reputation as China’s proxy. If that is the case, then Cambodia needs to do far more to introduce balance to its foreign policy.

By Umair Jamal

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that his government will only purchase coronavirus vaccines that are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), adding that his country cannot become a dumping ground for vaccine trials. The comment appeared to be a departure from Cambodia’s prior commitment to purchasing Chinese vaccines, as well as a potential criticism of countries, like Indonesia, that have allowed trials of Chinese vaccines.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Health has rejected media reports that Hun Sen has shunned Chinese vaccines. But media coverage of the comments has raised questions about whether the Cambodian prime minister is under pressure domestically to push back against China’s rising influence in the country and to change his policy of accepting everything that Beijing has to offer.

Hun Sen may be wary of the perception that his government bends to Beijing’s wishes, as it gives the impression that Cambodia no longer has an independent foreign policy.

Cambodia may accept a Chinese vaccine at some point but for now, by opting for vaccines that are approved by the WHO, Hun Sen may be trying to show neutrality in his foreign policy.

Cambodia has been raising funds to purchase WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines

In his speech on December 15, Hun Sen said that “Cambodia is not a dustbin… and not a place for a vaccine trial,” adding that “I would not allow Cambodians to be used for a vaccine trial conducted by any country or company unless it is approved by the WHO.”

Cambodia will reportedly obtain one million doses for its first round of COVID-19 vaccinations from the UN-backed COVAX program. At this stage, the country is not buying China’s Sinovac vaccine despite the fact that Indonesia has already received two shipments of the drug.

Cambodia has taken this position despite China’s earlier offer to provide vaccine support to the country, its closest ally in Southeast Asia. In his nationally televised speech on December 15, Hun Sen gave details on funds that his government has already received from sources other than China. Hun Sen noted that his administration has received US$250 million from the Asian Development Bank, more than $238 million from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and $50 million from South Korea’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund to purchase vaccines and fight the virus.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is Hun Sen under pressure domestically to no longer accept everything China has to offer?

Calls for a more balanced foreign policy have been rising in Cambodia for many years. Hun Sen’s critics say that Cambodia’s foreign policy is influenced by China to an extent that the country appears to follow an anti-US agenda in the region.
Many in Cambodia are increasingly worried that China’s growing investments are buying so much influence that the country won’t be able to push an independent foreign policy in the years to come.

This situation is most keenly felt in Sihanoukville, which sits next to Cambodia’s only deep-water port. The port city, which is also a vital part of China’s Belt and Road development initiative, has become a focal point for Chinese investment. The pace at which Chinese businesses and individuals have invested and bought land in the city has left many locals unsettled. According to some estimates, Chinese made up almost 20% of the Sihanoukville population before the imposition of a gambling ban and the onset of the pandemic.

In 2018, with the Chinese investment boom in full swing, residents expressed concern about the rapid shifts. “Everything has changed in Sihanoukville in just two years,” said Deu Dy, a Sihanoukville resident who is learning Chinese language to integrate better with the town’s new wealthy community. “I am worried that it’s very destructive to the environment, all this building… and what will happen when all the construction is finished and thousands more people come? There will be no Cambodia left in Sihanoukville.”

Though the Sihanoukville development rush has ground to a halt, it has been a key piece in bilateral relations.

Besides locals, ASEAN member states are also worried about Cambodia’s foreign policy. There have been suggestions of expelling Cambodia from ASEAN because the country’s foreign policy is aligned with China to an extent that it virtually mirrors Beijing’s interests.

“Cambodia needs also to rethink its foreign policy approach…It needs to improve its tarnished international image, in particular, by addressing the widespread perception that it is a Chinese proxy,” wrote Kimkong Heng, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

Is Hun Sun’s cautious stance on Cambodia’s vaccines a signal to the US?

In recent years, Cambodia’s relationship with the US has deteriorated because of Phenom Penh’s growing relationship with China. In 2017, Cambodia unilaterally cancelled planned joint military exercises with the US. Last year, Cambodia demolished two US-built facilities at the country’s largest naval base. Cambodia has been under constant pressure from the US for its alleged plans to offer military bases to China. Cambodia’s ties with the US have deteriorated to an extent that Washington’s aid for Phenom Penh is now tied to conditions aimed at containing Beijing’s influence in the country.

Some Cambodian analysts believe that Sun Hen is interested in resetting ties with the US in an effort at a semblance of balanced foreign policy. On Hun Sen’s part, such an effort signals to the incoming administration in the US that, though Cambodia and China’s interests are deeply aligned, the kingdom is not a proxy for the Asian giant.

It is too early to say if a veiled criticism of the Chinese vaccine will refute the pervasive impression that Cambodia’s government is beholden to Beijing’s interests. If Cambodia is truly interested in resetting its foreign policy, then the country will have to take more tangible steps that demonstrate government’s conviction in this regard.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15