On the surface, Cambodia's elections Sunday might appear like those in any dirt-poor nation struggling to decide how much democracy it can afford.
Politicians are killing each other, palms are being greased, voting will likely be rigged, and an authoritarian leader, Hun Sen, is trying to cling to power.
The July 26 vote will likely create a coalition government of enemies similar to the one elected under United Nations sponsorship in 1993. But there is a difference. How fair the new elections are in the eyes of the international community could help trigger a shift in the power balance between China and its smaller neighbors to the south.
War-torn Cambodia knows power games well. This tiny Southeast nation of 11 million people has long been the victim of bigger powers and the despots they helped install. It was colonized by France, bombed and invaded by the United States, ruled ruthlessly by the China-backed Khmer Rouge, and occupied by Vietnam. The effect was well over 2 million dead.
The latest game of big-power intrigue isn't very visible. Daily life among the rice paddies and city markets is tranquil, despite sporadic campaign violence.
In one village, Srei Kmornh, on the border with Vietnam, village chief Long Thornh finds comfort when he says, "We don't have any land mines here."
But the back-room intrigue is very real to Cambodian leaders and diplomats.
For its part, the US seems to be the only nation unwilling to give Cambodia's election a free pass. It has prepared for a Hun Sen victory by saying it will draft its own post-election report and not join with opinions from the Joint International Observer Group, the European-led coalition of observer nations.
Rights workers and observers here have called the JIOG a rubber-stamp organization. The American stand against a Hun Sen win could continue Cambodia's isolation and its eagerness to seek aid elsewhere.
Big neighbor to the north
But the more intriguing move is by China.
It has become the dominant commercial force in Cambodia and a top donor. Beijing resumed large-scale aid in the early '90s, and a recent agreement allows new businesses and more aid, including military equipment, to come in.
Ethnic Chinese businesses have flourished. Chinese-language schools are popping up. New ports, warehouses, and garment factories are Chinese-run. More than 90 percent of the Chamber of Commerce and many in top government posts are ethnic Chinese.
All this seems strange to those who have watched Hun Sen, currently the country's "co-premier," rise to power over the last 15 years. His government was installed by Vietnam, and Hun Sen has long had close ties to leaders in Hanoi.
Top government officials go to Vietnam for training, holidays, and medical treatment, diplomats say. Global Witness, a London-based watchdog, says Cambodia and Vietnam have struck a $200 million deal to log Cambodia's northeastern provinces. Diplomats and observers say Hun Sen flew to Vietnam for safety last July when he and his political rivals began a mini-war in the capital.
Vietnam's invasion 20 years ago was motivated in part by the desire to keep out Chinese influence in Cambodia. Indeed, the invasion dealt a humiliating blow to China when both the Khmer Rouge and Chinese diplomats were forced to flee the capital.
Cambodia's tortured history is due in part to a continuing rivalry between China and Vietnam, two historic enemies who, despite their similarity in being ruled by communists, last went to war in 1979.
Close friend to the east
Vietnam, whose northern border with China has always been troublesome, worries about being squeezed if China gains influence on its southern flank by forming an alliance with Cambodia.
By welcoming Chinese influence into his country, Hun Sen may be trying to balance Cambodia's close relationship with Vietnam, in hopes of reaping great rewards, say diplomats here.
Hun Sen's ties with Hanoi began in 1977 when, as a regional leader of the Khmer Rouge, he fled to Vietnam to escape the party purges of Pol Pot.
Two years later, Vietnam invaded and eventually helped bring him to power.
Vietnam withdrew in 1989, leading to a big-power agreement to sponsor the elections in 1993. Hun Sen's Cambodia's People Party lost, but he muscled his way back in a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition.
He took full control last July in what is widely seen as a coup, alienating the international community. Cambodia lost its UN seat, and virtually all non-humanitarian aid has been cut off.
His actions also forced the nine-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to withdraw an invitation for Cambodia to join as a member.
ASEAN, formed in 1967 mainly as an anti-communist alliance during the cold war, has been seen in the past by Beijing as an anti-China tool of the West. Adding Cambodia to the group would complete a Southeast Asian coalition that could someday serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansion. Cambodia's shift toward China worries the Vietnamese, who are at the forefront in trying to get Cambodia into ASEAN immediately after the elections.
Ironically, even though Vietnam has no multiparty democracy, it wants Cambodia's election to be acceptable to the West. "Vietnam is very concerned about Chinese influence," says a Western diplomat.
"That's why Vietnam wants the elections to be accepted and Cambodia to be admitted into ASEAN the next day."
"Southeast Asia would be better to stay and cooperate in its own family," says Dinh Van Thanh, spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh. "It would be very healthy for Cambodia and ASEAN if Cambodia joined ASEAN as soon as possible."
A majority in Cambodia's government favor the move, but more and more objections are being made about the cost of staffing, lost tariffs, ASEAN's inability to even soften the region's economic crisis, and the worry that ASEAN would limit China's involvement in Cambodia.
Prak Sokhonn, Hun Sen's adviser on international relations, has refused to discuss Cambodia's relationship with China, Vietnam, or ASEAN.
Svay Sitha, an adviser to the influential Council of Ministers and a government spokesman, says, "I would not say we don't join ASEAN, but that we delay joining." He denies there is any link between China's role in Cambodia and his concerns about joining ASEAN. "We like China because China respects sovereignty," he adds.
China a wary patron
But, with all this positioning, it is unclear whether China is willing to make the full commitment as a major patron here. One Chinese diplomat says his nation was being used by Cambodian politicians to further their own political ends. "The cold war has ended," he says. "China is finding a new solution [to regional issues]."
Sam Rainsy, a Cambodian labor activist challenging Hun Sen in this election, says China is not fooled by Hun Sen's attempt to welcome China. "The Chinese are aware Hun Sen remains Vietnam's natural ally. This is a special relationship nothing can affect."
Still, Hun Sen might gain some leverage over Vietnam in testy negotiations over border disputes. When he had little power as a leader in the 1980s, Hun Sen signed a border agreement that expanded Vietnam's territory but seared the hearts of the nationalistic Khmers.
There have been attempts to renegotiate that border as recently as 1996. Now the two nations are wrangling over their maritime border. Cambodia is contesting a pact between Vietnam and Thailand claiming it violates the nation's sovereignty. The three nations contest more than 2,100 square miles in the Gulf of Thailand.
Therein lies Hun Sen's problem. He could win Sunday's election by force, and thus alienate the West and lose ASEAN membership. That might please China. But what if China fails to support him?
Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, the constitutional monarch, played a similar game in the 1960s, when he was prince and an elected leader. Isolated from the West, he attempted to play Vietnamese, Chinese, and American interests off one another during the war in Vietnam. He failed and was toppled in an American-backed coup that led to a long tragedy.