Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the last of Southeast Asia’s multidecade autocrats, is likely to win the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections and extend his twenty-eight-year rule. Concerns that he will do so by repressing the opposition and engaging in voter fraud have led some U.S. policymakers to call for an end to U.S. aid for Cambodia.
But withdrawing U.S. aid will not prevent Hun Sen from rigging the elections. If Cambodia no longer receives U.S. aid, the Chinese will fill the funding gap. Instead, the United States should employ a wider variety of engagement mechanisms to promote democracy in Cambodia. Without such a normative shift, Washington’s influence in Cambodia will only decline—and its rebalancing strategy toward Asia will suffer.
A proposal spearheaded by Senate Republicans Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio calls for an end to direct assistance for Cambodia if its July 28 elections are not credible and competitive. Such proposals are not new: whenever Cambodia violates democratic norms or human rights, the United States threatens to cut aid. This “carrot and stick” approach may have worked in the past, but even when Hun Sen did respond to U.S. aid diplomacy—for example, he freed political prisoners and formed coalitions with the opposition when it helped acquire foreign aid—the fundamental character of the Cambodian regime did not change.
This time, U.S. aid diplomacy will not work because there is a new big player in Asia: China. Cambodians know that if Washington suspends aid, they can always lean on Beijing. In April 2013, China promised Cambodia $548 million in aid for infrastructure—over seven times the amount of U.S. aid in 2012 ($76 million). And Chinese aid comes with fewer strings than U.S. assistance. In 2009, Hun Sen praised the lack of conditions attached to Chinese aid, saying “China respects the political decisions of Cambodia.” For Hun Sen, U.S. lectures on good governance have little effect when Chinese loans are so easy to come by.
Especially given the presence of this alternate patron, the U.S. belief that aid can serve as an effective tool of political instruction for Cambodia’s leaders is naive. As the Cambodian foreign minister recently stated, “Whether the U.S. helps Cambodia [with aid] or not is within the U.S.’s rights, but Cambodia is a sovereign and independent state.” Even when Cambodia takes credit for actions designed to defuse international criticism—such as Hun Sen’s recent pardon of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, which allows the exiled politician to return to Cambodia—the gestures are hollow. Rainsy will not be allowed to run for parliament or even to vote.
Stopping aid will not only be ineffective. It will also be counterproductive. It will cost the United States popularity among reformist elements it wants to support and stop worthy U.S.-funded efforts in health programs and development projects impacting the poor. Without U.S. backing, the Cambodia Tribunal, which was established in concert with the UN to try those responsible for the atrocities committed under Cambodia’s Communist former leaders, the Khmer Rouge, may not move forward. Cutting off U.S. aid will also make it difficult for U.S. nongovernmental organizations to work in Cambodia and more generally distance Cambodians from Americans.
So in the end, while the United States cannot ignore cynical election rigging in Cambodia, withdrawing aid will do more harm than good. Instead, Washington needs a new diplomatic paradigm.
In forming a new strategy, the United States could learn from its experience with Myanmar. When Myanmar’s ruling government refused to respect electoral results in 1990, the United States—as well as many other Western donor countries and agencies—withdrew its aid and assistance. This halted all contact between Burmese and American leaders. Myanmar became dependent on China’s help while widespread repression and violence against the population continued.
So it was to great international surprise that in March 2011, after the military junta had won another “election,” Burmese President Thein Sein called for fundamental political and economic reforms. It has since become clear that Myanmar always had a moderate reformist wing, even in the armed forces, that was waiting for an opportunity to shift the country’s strategic direction. That chance was given by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which adopted a nonpunitive strategy toward Myanmar that proved markedly more successful than the U.S. approach.
ASEAN welcomed Myanmar as a member in 1997 and promoted democracy, openness, and human rights, partly through example but also through interactions in numerous meetings.1 Instead of sanctions, ASEAN used dialogue and peer pressure to encourage incremental reforms, such as the release of political prisoners.2 This strategy kept Myanmar engaged with the region and its leadership. When Myanmar required emergency relief following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, it was ASEAN that served as the vital bridge between the military junta and the international community. And it was ASEAN that stood with Myanmar when it canceled the Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam in 2011, an act of political courage that signaled its willingness to stand up to its giant neighbor.
In dealing with Cambodia, the United States could adopt a modified version of ASEAN’s approach to Myanmar. It could also join forces with ASEAN to constructively engage with Cambodia, which would make the peer pressure stronger than if the United States goes it alone.
After the election, Washington should look beyond using aid as a weapon and making threats to encourage change in developing countries. Myanmar’s experience shows that international isolation does not help. It will not change Cambodia and may only drive it further into the arms of China.
When Hun Sen eventually departs from the political scene, the United States will want to be present for the transition. To do so, it must play the long game in Cambodia. Carrots and sticks do not create lasting change, but spreading universal values of democracy and human rights through repeated, consistent engagement might.
Nadia Bulkin is a research assistant in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
1 Mathew Davies, “The Perils of Incoherence: ASEAN, Myanmar and the Avoidable Failures of Human Rights Socialization?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 34, no. 1 (2012): 1–22.
2 Jürgen Haacke, “ASEAN and Political Change in Myanmar: Towards a Regional Initiative?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 30, no. 3 (2008): 351–378.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the type of election. It is a parliamentary election, not a presidential election.