The China factor is big and wide. A territorial uproar in the South China Sea pits China against several ASEAN nations, as well as Japan. The dispute "is getting to be quite aggressive and threatening to many of our traditional allies," says Joel Brinkley, author of Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. "This administration is very intent on increasing and empowering our presence in that part of the world."
China also boasts a massive economic footprint in Cambodia unlikely to be matched by any other nation: a reported $8.2 billion of investments in the past six years, with another $2.5 billion in infrastructure and loans in the works. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, China's 2011 investments in Cambodia -- totaling nearly 15 percent of the country's GDP -- exceeded those of the U.S. tenfold. "China has spent billions of dollars trying to buy Cambodia," Brinkley says. That money has helped build an infrastructure and economy unrecognizable from that of just five years ago. Roads, bridges, factories, skyscrapers: Cambodia's pastoral landscape is changing.
Those shifts underscore a crucial point. For all his transgressions, Hun Sen has sown two key seeds while cultivating his power. "He has imposed stability on a country that has experienced more than thirty years of turmoil and civil war," Jameson writes in a March 2011 East-West Center report. And he has opened his country "to virtually unrestricted foreign investment." The Obama administration likes political stability and economic expansion. Both decrease the likelihood of unrest, which would threaten both U.S. and Chinese interests.
The thing is, Chinese money comes with no humanitarian strings attached. And, "foreign leaders coming to Cambodia and lecturing Hun Sen accomplish nothing," Brinkley says. "Nothing."
Human rights issues in Cambodia are "unrelated to visits by foreign potentates," says historian David Chandler, one of the foremost experts on modern Cambodia. Hun Sen has a history of excoriating foreigners who critique him. Recently, when the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia urged Cambodian authorities to improve conditions for next year's national elections, Hun Sen reportedly said he "should not write stupidly about Cambodia."