OPINION: How Cambodia became ‘first among equals’ for China
BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Cambodia's closer relations with China were forged at the cost of the Asean's disquiet.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was initially no fan of China when he took power in 1985, has since catapulted Cambodia to the 'first among equals' of the Southeast Asian nations competing for strong ties with Beijing.
In the period between the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime (1979) and the peace agreement (1991), Cambodia was a playground for all types of powers, big and small, near and far. Thailand was wary of Vietnam, which had driven out the Khmer Rouge and backed Hun Sen’s faction. Bangkok invited Beijing to join the play, supplying political backup and military support to help the coalition of three Khmer factions – under King Norodom Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, and the group led by ex-premier Son Sann – in the fight against Hun Sen. Beijing had been a second home for King Sihanouk since 1970.
The 1989-1991 Paris Peace Conference on Cambodia offered a new opportunity for China and other countries including Thailand to fine-tune their relations with Phnom Penh.
After the Paris Peace Accord signed in 1991 to end Cambodia’s protracted civil war, China provided substantial assistance to boost the economy and build infrastructure in the war-ravaged country.
Chinese corporations added 2,600 kilometres of highway, increasing the country’s total road length by more than a third, and built seven large-scale bridges across the inland Tonle Sap River and the Mekong, to connect Cambodia to its neighbours.
However, Hun Sen found that befriending Beijing was no easy task given that Hanoi – which was also helping to rebuild the nation after the Khmer Rouge disaster – remained in conflict with China over historical grievances and territorial disputes.
But when his 1997 power seizure resulted in an international backlash, strongman Hun Sen was able to explain to Hanoi his need for good relations with Beijing. Rejected at first, Cambodia finally joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations after the 1997 financial crisis, and other member-countries have been relieved to see the country stabilise and Vietnam’s influence wane.
But Cambodia has been edging ever-closer to China since the beginning of the century, when Beijing began lavishing economic assistance on Southeast Asia, notably in the Mekong Basin which spreads into China. The first Greater Mekong Sub-region summit of six states – China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – was held in Phnom Penh in 2002 and it set the tone for Beijing’s strong influence in Cambodia and the wider region.
Trade, investment and particularly economic assistance in various forms have since poured in from China. It is no exaggeration to say that Chinese money has played a crucial role in modernising Phnom Penh and other major Cambodian provinces.
Last year alone Chinese investments in Cambodia totalled $864 million – among the $9.1 billion pledged since 1994, according to the Council for the Development of Cambodia.
That figure is set to rise further with pledges made by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his first state visit to Cambodia last week. A “soft” loan worth around $237 million was among a total of 31 cooperation documents signed last week by both countries, covering everything from the economy, technology and infrastructure to efforts to curb human trafficking, tax and maritime cooperation. China also pledged more investment in such fields as energy, telecommunications, agriculture, industry and tourism, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
For its part, Phnom Penh agreed to accelerate projects for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and align its 10-year industrial development policy with China’s 13th Five-Year Plan by working to raise bilateral trade volume to $5 billion in 2017.
However, there is a big price to pay for Beijing’s “generosity”. Cambodia has deported Uighur asylum seekers back to China without question, despite strong international criticism. The Muslim ethnic minority will no longer find sanctuary in the arms of Phnom Penh. Cambodia is also China’s first defender against international criticism on various issues, notably the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Its moves in 2012 and this year to bar Asean from delivering joint statements on the maritime dispute have caused widespread discomfort in the regional grouping, several members of which are at loggerheads with Beijing over sea territory.
- Opinion: How Cambodia became ‘first among equals’ for China