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Chinese support fuels Southeast Asia's authoritarian tilt

Hands-off Beijing enables Cambodia's political repression, Myanmar's ethnic persecution

A man rides a motorcycle past the Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters in Phnom Penh on Nov. 17, 2017.   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH/YANGON -- The metal gate is closed at the shuttered headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in downtown Phnom Penh. No sign remains of the crowds of supporters who thronged the building during regional elections in June. A sign calling for the release of imprisoned party leader Kem Sokha lies abandoned on the ground.

The scene symbolizes the death of Cambodia's largest opposition party. The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP on Nov. 16 after Kem Sokha's arrest on charges of treason. Its 55 seats in parliament -- 44% of the total -- were allocated to smaller parties, with 41 going to a royalist party that previously had none. The court's blatantly political decision, influenced by Prime Minister Hun Sen, virtually assures the ruling Cambodian People's Party of victory in the 2018 national election.

The U.S. and the European Union have condemned the CNRP's dissolution as undemocratic and indicated that economic sanctions are on the table. But such threats have not fazed Hun Sen. The prime minister dared Washington to end all aid to Cambodia in a Nov. 18 speech to 5,000 garment workers.

Chinese support has enabled this bravado. The Cambodian government's removal of political opposition is part of a growing trend toward authoritarianism in Southeast Asia that continues even in the face of international criticism, due largely to diplomatic and economic aid from Beijing.

A powerful patron

Sino-Cambodian trade has swelled an average of 26% annually over the last decade. China is also Cambodia's largest foreign investor, pouring massive sums into such industries as manufacturing, construction, textiles and power. Some 830,000 Chinese tourists visited the smaller country last year, up 20% from 2015.

The give-and-take relationship is more than just economic. Phnom Penh often stakes out positions close to Beijing's on South China Sea territorial disputes between China and such other nations as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The situation is similar in Myanmar, where a harsh military crackdown has forced hundreds of thousands of members of the Rohingya ethnic Muslim minority to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. Even as criticism from the international community has grown, Beijing has consistently supported Naypyitaw's stance that the crisis is an internal affair.

China has also lent a hand with diplomatic negotiations, positioning itself as a mediator. Shortly before a Nov. 20-21 gathering of Asian and European foreign ministers in Naypyitaw, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Bangladesh to discuss the refugee issue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Wang has also met with Myanmar officials including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Money talks

Stronger economic ties are reinforcing the diplomatic relationship. China opened in April a crude oil pipeline running through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. And from Nov. 21 to Nov. 26, Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing visited China to promote closer cooperation.

Maintaining friendly relations with Myanmar, a vital link to the Indian Ocean, is key to China's Belt and Road Initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road stretching from China to Europe. And Beijing's backing provides a measure of reassurance to a Naypyitaw finding itself increasingly isolated on the international stage.

Suu Kyi plans to visit China soon, a move apparently meant to signal a tilt away from Western critics and toward a neighbor sympathetic to Myanmar's stance on the refugee issue.

Thailand's military junta is showing signs of a shift toward Beijing as well. Relations between Washington and its longtime ally cooled under U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration was critical of the junta, while successor Donald Trump has complained of a bilateral trade imbalance.

In an address Nov. 10 at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Trump made clear that the U.S. will be more active in what he called the "Indo-Pacific" region. But some Southeast Asian governments are likely to be less receptive to advances by Washington, with its concern about human rights issues, than to Beijing and its official policy of noninterference in local affairs.

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