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Phillippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia shake hands after a meeting in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace yesterday.
Phillippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia shake hands after a meeting in Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace yesterday. Hong Menea

A budding friendship

A more than hour-long meeting between Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, making his first-ever visit to Cambodia, and Prime Minister Hun Sen ended yesterday afternoon with an aide to the premier offering reporters the typical avowals of “cooperation”.

But while the state visit – which included a morning audience with King Norodom Sihamoni – provided no groundbreaking treaties or trade deals, it seemed less like the typical diplomatic glad-handing than it did a symbol of a growing friendship with a key element in common: disdain for the moralising of the international community.

Since taking office in June, Duterte has repeatedly lashed out at the UN and the United States, whose criticisms of his extra-judicial killing of almost 6,000 suspected drug dealers and users he views as an intrusion on Filipino sovereignty.

Similarly, Hun Sen’s government recently threatened to expel the UN’s human rights office from Cambodia over perceived meddling. Earlier this week, Philippine Ambassador Christopher Montero told Manila-based news outlet Tempo that Hun Sen – who spoke warmly with Duterte on the sidelines of a September ASEAN meeting – “has a deep admiration” for the Filipino leader. “He sees in him an ally in terms of standing up against Western countries insofar as non-interference in internal affairs of a state is concerned,” the ambassador was quoted as saying.

However, there was a time when “ally” would not have been the word the Philippines chose to describe Cambodia.Indeed, Cambodia and the Philippines have been at contretemps in recent years over the latter’s dispute with China about territorial waters in the South China Sea, with Filipino officials at times barely succeeding in masking their irritation at the Kingdom’s repeated obstructionism.

The previous Filipino administration had championed the ASEAN line that, the sea being a matter affecting multiple member states, the community of nations ought to negotiate with China as one. Cambodia, which has no stake in the dispute, has backed China’s assertion that the matter was best left to concerned states to settle on an individual basis, effectively blocking joint ASEAN statements on more than one occasion, and as recently as July.

Duterte, who recently assumed ASEAN chairmanship, has since said he would rather negotiate with China alone, and past tensions were not evident at yesterday’s meeting. While Ambassador Montero had predicted in an interview with the Filipino ABS-CBN News that yesterday’s meeting would be host to a “lively discussion” of the South China Sea issue, a spokesman for Hun Sen said after the meeting that “there was no discussion [of the South China Sea] at all, not at all”.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte walks away from Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument during a state visit yesterday.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte walks away from Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument during a state visit yesterday. Heng Chivoan

Ou Virak, president of think-tank Future Forum, in an email yesterday situated the burgeoning alliance between the two leaders in the context of a global trend in which outspoken heads of state find the confidence to be more open about their unorthodox style of governance.

“I think we will see a growing alliance of populist leaders and strongmen across the whole world, not just this region,” Virak said. “I don’t think they come to this conclusion – their disregard for the international system – without some realism.

One, they might have learnt that the international system is never fair. Two, they might have learnt that [the international community is] pretty much toothless now that China and Russia are growing bold enough to push back.”

However, the two states’ present alignment may not last forever, and doesn’t come without risks, observers said yesterday. Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, said in an email that both leaders’ “pro-China populism” risked “a deep dependency on China”.

“Such is already the case of Cambodia,” he said. National security analyst Long Kim Khorn, meanwhile, said he believed Duterte’s visit was part of an effort to gain the ear of Beijing on the matter. “Cambodia is close with China, so Cambodia can talk to China,” Kim Khorn said, adding that Hun Sen was looking for any friends he could get after six months of criticism from the international community and ASEAN neighbours alike over his crackdown on the opposition.

And it may be too early to herald a new “us against the world” era in Filipino-Cambodian relations, according to Miguel Chanco, lead ASEAN analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. For starters, while Hun Sen has governed Cambodia in one capacity or another for more than three decades, Duterte is limited to a single six-year term in office.

“We might see stronger relations over the next six years, but after that, it’s too early to say whether this will be pursued long term,” Chanco said. “Even though we have an anti-US sentiment in the Philippines, the public is still very much pro-US . . . a president who sticks to an anti-Western approach is not something we see as sustainable.”

Ou Virak also cautioned that both nations’ disdain for the international community – as personified in a Western-led world order – may backfire: “Looking back at history, I think they could be proven wrong as weak countries tend to be the first victims in a dog-eats-dog world order.”

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