Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is battening down the hatches amid strident criticism of his government at home and abroad as his country takes flak for putting its financially rewarding alliance with China above the wishes of the Asean states, and the rising political violence in the run-up to the elections stokes popular protest and spooks foreign investors.

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His support for Beijing’s maritime claims at a recent Association of South East Asian Nations meeting in Laos, where his government again thwarted efforts to establish a multilateral programme aimed at dispute resolution with China, has cast the region’s longest serving leader as a spoiler who has split the trade bloc.

“Cambodia is losing more and more international legitimacy and as a result, rightly or wrongly, our position has been met with scepticism,” said Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum think tank.

Ever since China wrote off much of Cambodia’s debt obligations in 2002 and resuscitated bilateral relations, Hun Sen has attempted to downplay his country’s role in the South China Sea disputes.

But that pretence ended in July when the UN arbitration court upheld legal action brought by the Philippines and ruled China held no “historic title” to international waters also contested within Asean by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Cambodia backed China’s refusal to recognise the court’s jurisdiction and supported its push to deal with each party to the dispute on a bilateral basis, which analysts said would substantially strengthen Beijing’s hand in talks with its much smaller neighbours. Following the verdict, China said it was grateful for Cambodia’s support and gifted it almost US$600 million in aid.

READ MORE: China denies political conditions linked to US$600m aid package for Cambodia

Cambodia then succeeded in watering down an Asean statement that ignored the UN-sanctioned court and the realities of the political brawling, much to the angst of other members. It was a second diplomatic coup within a week and a gushing Beijing indicated it would build Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a new 12-storey administrative building in the capital.

China can take all the credit for effectively emasculating Asean
Keith Loveard

“China can take all the credit for effectively emasculating Asean,” Keith Loveard, an analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting said. “Clearly, China believes that other countries in the region have no right to oppose its will.”

READ MORE: Most Asean countries ‘want to stay out of Beijing’s South China Sea dispute with the Philippines

It’s a Gordian knot that is troubling the more powerful members of Asean. Their failure to deal with Cambodia’s recalcitrance when it first emerged four years ago, as naval brinkmanship in the South China Sea flared, has cost them dearly. “Since then Asean has tried to carry on as if nothing has happened, but this time around reality will be a lot harder to ignore,” Loveard added. “This position cannot fail sooner or later to create tensions that could lead to conflict.”

Chinese money – around US$15 billion in the last two decades – has energised the Cambodian economy in recent years and Hun Sen is acutely aware that the sharp financial slowdown by his northern benefactor and a devaluation of the yuan could hurt his chances at elections in 2018. The CPP won the government three years ago, amid allegations of widespread cheating, but with a sharply reduced majority.

Sixty-five per cent of the population is under the age of 30 and holds a vastly different mindset to their parents who witnessed their country’s descent into rubble amid three decades of war. Hun Sen’s electoral promises of security and warnings of internal strife if the CPP is defeated hold little meaning for an educated, post-war generation who are demanding well paid jobs, a share of life’s luxuries and favouring the opposition.

Public anger is also seething over a crackdown on political dissent, a report by the London-based international corruption watchdog Global Witness that outlined the fantastic wealth accumulated by Hun Sen’s family, and the assassination last month of the widely respected independent analyst and radio host Kem Ley.

Do Cambodians really care about the South China Sea? I doubt it
Analyst

One analyst, who declined to be named, said Kem Ley’s death had a familiar ring to past Cambodian election campaigns, often marked by assassinations, bullying and intimidation. “We’re on an early election footing, opposition politicians are being pursued in the courts or have fled – it’s an established pattern – but the CPP also needs money and that’s why the alliance with China is so important. Do Cambodians really care about the South China Sea? I doubt it.”

About 250,000 people joined Kem Ley’s funeral procession, which travelled 90km from Phnom Penh to his home village. Perhaps three times as many lined the streets and highways. The government’s image was not helped by an order that banned petrol stations from selling gas and water to mourners en route. However, this did not stop impoverished villagers from donating fuel and water out of their own precious stocks.

READ MORE: Thousands in funeral march for slain Cambodia activist Kem Ley

It was a turnout that paralleled the 2013 funeral for revered former monarch Norodom Sihanouk, and the 500,000 people who welcomed opposition leader Sam Rainsy home from exile the same year.

That type of devotion Hun Sen can only yearn for amid his dwindling popularity and changing demographics, which he still hopes to win over by driving the local economy with Chinese money. The reliance on the latter can only increase as chambers of commerce say there has been a noticeably sharp drop in interest from Western investors who would now prefer to wait until after the election to see how the politics pan out.

Rarely in Cambodia has Chinese generosity counted for so much.

Former bureau chief of AFP in Afghanistan and Cambodia, Luke Hunt is currently a professor at Pannasastra University in Cambodia