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China-Cambodia: More than just friends?
By Julio A Jeldres

In July, in a message of congratulation to the leadership of the People's Republic of China on the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and China, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen hailed China as Cambodia's "most trustworthy friend", despite that country's past support for the Khmer Rouge.

Indeed, since the Vietnamese army drove the Chinese ambassador and thousands of advisors out with the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, China has gradually regained a foothold in Cambodia and has become Cambodia's most influential trade and political partner. Relations between Beijing and Phnom Penh are the closest they have been since the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime collapsed.

Cambodia's close relations with China began in July 1958, when the government of then Prince Norodom Sihanouk recognized the People's Republic of China and established an enduring personal relationship with the late Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai. Chinese leaders have not forgotten that it was Sihanouk's Cambodia that helped break China's isolation in the 1960s by campaigning at the United Nations (UN) for the expulsion of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the seating at the UN of the People's Republic of China.

But while maintaining excellent relations with the royal government of Cambodia presided over by Sihanouk, China secretly aided the Khmer Rouge's insurgent movement in the jungles of Cambodia, just as it provided assistance and ideological guidance to insurgent communist guerrillas in Burma (now Myanmar), Malaysia and Thailand.

Since that time, China's policies toward Cambodia have been singled out by one fact: Beijing does not care who runs Cambodia, as long as the ruler is amenable to helping China maintain its strategic position in the region.

In 1970, after a coup deposed Sihanouk, the prince took residence in Beijing, where the Chinese leadership treated him with all the honors due a head of state, providing him with sanctuary and the means to struggle against Lon Nol, the coup leader. However, Khmer Rouge ruler Pol Pot is said to have became a protege of Beijing in the late 1960s, after he was rebuffed by the Vietnamese leadership.

In 1975, after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, China became very influential in the country and sent thousands of technicians to help the Khmer Rouge revolution. Then in 1979, China decided to teach Vietnam "a lesson" for its invasion and occupation of Cambodia and for driving its protege, the Khmer Rouge, from power, despite the fact that many Chinese residents of Cambodia, or Sino-Khmer, were murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime because they were considered members of the bourgeoisie or were well educated.

Only after the Paris Agreements of October 1991 were signed was China able to come back to Cambodia, initially very discreetly but, since 1997, in full force.

Yet the return of China to Phnom Penh has not been welcomed by all Cambodians, with many intellectuals and politicians worried that because of the renewed Sino-American rivalry in the Southeast Asian region, Cambodia may once again become a pawn in the strategic and geopolitical games of the two most powerful countries in the world.

When current prime minister, Hun Sen, sent tanks against his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh - a son of King Norodom Sihanouk - in July 1997, the international community reacted over the political killings that followed, and relations cooled with most of the country's Western donors, who suspended almost all but humanitarian assistance to Cambodia. Investors pulled out, scared by the killings but also concerned by the regional economic crisis of mid-1997, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) denied Cambodia membership within the organization.

After the coup, Hun Sen, who until then had an informal relationship with Beijing and had received a lukewarm reception there in mid-1996, looked around and determined that China had remained silent about the July events and, moreover, had not expressed concern over the killing of royalist officials.

Former US ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann, who once headed the State Department's China section, believes the Chinese are "incredibly sophisticated political analysts" and in Cambodia they have demonstrated so.

In August 1997, China granted US$6 million in assistance to Cambodia to build hundreds of wells, and interior minister Sar Kheng visited China to discuss cooperation "on security issues", even though the outcome of those discussions was never made public.

However, a few days later, Hun Sen announced that the Taiwanese representative office in Phnom Penh was being shut down, despite Taiwan being one of Cambodia's major investors.

Hun Sen's actions endeared him to Beijing and opened the door once again for Chinese influence in Cambodia. China was the first country to recognize the change of regime, after the July 1997 coup, and in December of that year, China delivered 116 military cargo trucks and 70 jeeps valued at $2.8 million, offsetting the cessation of military aid by Australia and other countries after the coup.

Since early 1999, China's influence in Cambodia has not ceased to increase. In February of that year, Prime Minister Hun Sen paid an official visit to China, the first he had done in his capacity as Cambodia's strongman. Hun Sen, who had written a long essay back in 1988 suggesting that China "was the root of everything that was evil in Cambodia", had now changed his tune and,confronted by Western accusations of gross violations of human rights, government corruption and lack of transparency, decided to play "the China card" in his relations with foreign countries.

After his February 1999 visit to China, Hun Sen obtained $200 million in free-interest loans and $18.3 million in foreign assistance guarantees, prompting the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh to acknowledge that the $218.3 million was one of the highest aid amounts ever provided by China to any country and calling Hun Sen's visit "a new high in Cambodia-China relations".

Since then there has been not a single month without a Chinese delegation of some kind visiting Cambodia. The number of Cambodian official delegations visiting China has increased twofold. The presidents of both the Cambodian National Assembly and the Senate have visited as have the Cambodian ministers of interior, defense, foreign affairs and others.

Warming relations reached their peak in November 2000 with a highly publicized visit by Chinese president Jiang Zemin. At a banquet hosted by King Norodom Sihanouk, Jiang made a point of underlining China's support for Cambodia's actions at safeguarding its sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity and announced that he was canceling Cambodia's debt with China to help stabilize the economy of the small country.

China has actively boosted its influence in Cambodia by not hesitating to take over where Western multilateral lenders and other donors, increasingly frustrated over the level of corruption and the lack of response of the Cambodian government on such issues as human rights, military and administrative reforms, have given up. China, is not concerned by these "Western benchmarks" and is prepared to deal with any regime in the region as long as China's interests and policies for the region are enhanced and protected.

By offering development assistance to Cambodia, which is normally delivered through Chinese government-controlled companies, Beijing ensures that Taiwan, the largest foreign investor in Cambodia remains politically isolated, something that Prime Minister Hun Sen is more than willing to do to please Beijing.

From agricultural development, pharmaceuticals, plastic manufacturing, textiles, sugar factories, engineering and meteorology to education and Chinese hospitals, China's presence is now very visible indeed in the Cambodian capital.

But China's interests go even farther. It wishes, by these informal alliances with authoritarian regimes of the region, such as those in Cambodia and Myanmar, first, to counter US influence in the region, and second, to neutralize, if not undermine, the cohesion of ASEAN. Since a number of ASEAN states, discreetly supported by the United States, are challenging China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, the alignment of those states within ASEAN considered to be pro-China would in effect prevent the association from adopting a united front on that issue.

Finally, China wishes to weaken Hun Sen's links with Vietnam, which go back to the time of the United States' intervention in Vietnam and, subsequently, Cambodia in 1970. Vietnam has long been seen by China as its most serious strategic rival in the Southeast Asian region. Apart from past acrimonious relations between the two countries, Vietnam currently has two territorial disputes with Beijing - both countries claiming sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands (see South China Sea: It's not all about oil, September 6).

Many Cambodians are worried, however, that in pursuing its interests in Cambodia and the region, Beijing will not hesitate to call for help upon controversial local figures, such as Sino-Cambodian tycoon Theng Bunma, who has been banned from the United States, Thailand and Hong Kong because of alleged drug-trafficking activities.

It is known that the Chinese Embassy has asked Bunma to intervene on several occasions with his senior contacts in the ruling Cambodian People's Party when Beijing does not agree with the way the Cambodian government is handling a particular issue. This situation recently occurred over the issue of legislation to formalize a mixed tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge leadership, legislation China has always opposed.

Another concern for the Cambodians is that most of the Chinese firms doing business in Cambodia come from Guangxi province, one of China's poorest, where corruption is rampant and where a past provincial deputy party chief, Xu Binsong, was sentenced to life in prison in August 1999 for taking bribes and influence-peddling.

This kind of investment and assistance, critics said, is welcomed by certain Cambodian politicians and business leaders, who in many cases have reason to avoid public scrutiny.

Julio A Jeldres is a former senior private secretary to King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and the king's official biographer.

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Sep 16, 2003

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