Saturday, November 6, 2010

Any Results?

Usually a visit by a foreign government official to Cambodia results in some kind of promise, political agreements, or even contracts which would help the country in some way or other, but Hillary Clinton’s visit seemed to have been more of a good-will tour because no tangible results came out of her two-day visit to Cambodia.

First of all, she started out in Siem Reap, where she visited the shelter for trafficked women. The she took of tour of Angkor Wat; of course, she can’t miss that. But is this the way to start a state visit?

The most interesting pronouncement was her idea to use Cambodia’s debt to the U. S. to channel it into education and the environment or nature. The way understood I it, her idea was that Cambodia repays at least some of the money, which the U. S. then earmarks for those purposes. The balance might then be used directly within Cambodia with a firm commitment to those purposes. This is at least a novel idea and quite different from that expressed by her Assistant Deputy Under Secretary (that is a mouthful, isn’t it?) who testified before a Congressional Committee that it needs to be repaid - period. It actually is quite a good concept that could be used by other countries as well when it comes to repaying those immense loans Cambodia has piled up over the years. But a Secretary of State doesn’t have the authority to make such a concession point-blank. It needs to be reviewed by however many committees and subcommittees. So in order to prepare for this she will send over a team of experts to hammer out details with the Cambodian government that will stand up in those committees and ultimately in the U. S. Congress. Having followed American politics for many, many years I am doubtful, though, that this idea will meet with much enthusiasm. American politicians are good when it comes to talking about issues that don’t affect the budget, but once money is involved, their thinking tends to change quite rapidly. With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and only 53 seats in the Senate Obama and Hillary Clinton are practically hamstrung. They won’t get one law passed without major concessions, if any at all.

As a consequence, this issue will remain on the backburner. The Cambodian government could just relax and wait what happens if it were not for the interest that keeps accruing to the original debt, which was something like $330 million and has now risen to over $440 million. Bottom line: nothing will happen the next two years.

Her remarks on the UN Human Rights office, and human rights in general, were typical diplomatese and in my mind distinctive only in that they were softer than what all human rights organizations had anticipated and even encouraged her to state. Her words on the opposition parties were equally broad and general. According to the press, she stated she would follow the situation ‘in detail’. Now what does that mean? In no way could this be interpreted as her ‘helping Sam Rainsy return to Cambodia for the next election’. The opposition was clearly overshooting with that statement. Wishful thinking? Notably absent was Mu Sochua playing for a central public role in the encounter with Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t even mentioned in particular in the statement released by the opposition. Did she really miss that chance to buddy up to her ‘close friend’ Hillary?

Overall, the whole visit was remarkable in that it was rather unremarkable in the context of Cambodian politics. Maybe she really did want to get away from the for the Democrats catastrophic mid-term elections in the U. S. And sure enough, the next day a high-ranking Chinese official came to town who got a lot more play in the press. Well for one, he stayed 4 days instead of the 2-day whirlwind tour of Hillary Clinton. And besides, he brought with him a $1.2 billion package, and the Chinese government forgave $4.2 million in debt that had become due for repayment. Who’s to argue with this? All this happened on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s admonition that Cambodia should seek partners everywhere in Asia (and beyond), not just China. Make no mistake, Vietnam might be on the opposition’s mind, but the real dominating force here is China these days. With $62 million or so p. a. in U. S. aid for Cambodia, there is just not enough leverage for the U. S. to make their case; additionally, their influence as a great power is waning. This was underscored by the fact that Forbes magazine chose Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, as the most powerful man on earth. The Americans sure got enough problems at home right now – and they will last well into the next decade - to bother with backwater countries like Cambodia.

Another sign, though on a smaller scale: I just learned the other day that one large private Cambodian rubber manufacturer sold out to a Chinese company. China is the next great power and will dominate the world. This is the reality, people.

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