China’s Tightening Relationship with Cambodia

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 9

Premier Wen Jiabao’s official visit to Cambodia from April 7-8 symbolized the tightening relationship between Cambodia and the PRC. Beijing stepped up aid to Cambodia through 11 bilateral agreements covering a range of issues, including combating transnational crime, health cooperation, internet services, protecting the Angkor Wat temples, and establishing a national botanical garden (Xinhua, April 8). In addition, the two sides agreed to enhance economic, political and military interaction through a Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation. Most importantly, Wen pledged $600 million in loans and grants. At the conclusion of his visit, Prime Minister Hun Sen described China as Cambodia’s “most trustworthy friend.”

China has played a prominent role in Cambodia’s foreign relations since the country attained independence in 1953. Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia occupies an important geographical position on mainland Southeast Asia. Since 1953 the PRC has sought to limit U.S., Thai and particularly Vietnamese influence in Cambodia by acting as patron to a succession of Cambodian strongmen. During the 1960s the PRC lent its patronage to ex-King Sihanouk, and during 1975-1978 to the notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot (China continued to supply the Khmer Rouge with weaponry along the Thai-Cambodian border between 1979 and 1990). Since 1997 Prime Minister Hun Sen has been the object of Chinese patronage. This patronage has helped Hun Sen consolidate political hegemony. In return, China has derived a number of important political and strategic payoffs. Today, Cambodia is one of China’s closest friends in Southeast Asia, second only to Burma.

Following UN supervised elections in 1993, a coalition government was formed composed of Prince Norodom Ranaridh’s FUNCINPEC party and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). First Prime Minister Ranaridh (Sihanouk’s son) and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla who defected to Vietnam in 1977 and later served as prime minister in the Vietnamese installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea during the 1980s) had a tense relationship, and in July 1997 the coalition government collapsed when Hun Sen ousted Ranaridh in a violent coup. Prior to 1996, China backed FUNCINPEC, viewing Hun Sen as a Vietnamese puppet. Beginning in 1996, however, China began to woo Hun Sen, incensed at FUNCINPEC’s courtship with Taiwan. The 1997 coup left Cambodia with few friends in the international community, and Hun Sen turned to the PRC for diplomatic support and financial aid. China seized the opportunity to expand its influence in Cambodia: it immediately recognized the results of the coup, opposed the imposition of international sanctions against Phnom Penh, and admonished Western countries not to interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs.

Since 1997, Sino-Cambodian relations have tightened considerably. China’s economic profile in Cambodia has become particularly pronounced. In the wake of the coup Hun Sen turned to China for financial aid to replace that temporarily suspended by Western donors. China responded generously with a $10 million loan. Between 1997 and 2005 China provided a further $600 million in investments, grants, and aid. As noted earlier, during Wen’s April visit, China pledged another $600 million. China has used this aid to maximum political advantage through the financing of high profile, but relatively low-cost, infrastructure projects and then canceling the debts on maturity. Such projects include luxury offices and facilities for the Cambodian government. During his April visit, Premier Wen laid the foundation stone for a new PRC-financed $49 million Council of Ministers (the Cambodian cabinet) building. China has also provided preferential tariff treatment for 418 Cambodian products.

Chinese companies became very active in Cambodia post-1997 and in 2004 the PRC emerged as the number one foreign investor. In the first nine months of 2005, the PRC pledged $442 million in investments, up from $80 million in 2004 (Xinhua, February 14). Bilateral trade increased 50 percent in 2005 and the two sides aim to boost two-way trade from $500 million to $1 billion by 2010. China’s economic presence in Cambodia has been facilitated by the country’s small but active ethnic Chinese community.

Political ties between the two countries have been bolstered considerably since 1997. In 2000, President Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese head of state to visit Cambodia, and his trip was followed by NPC Chairman Li Peng in 2001 and Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002. Hun Sen has become a frequent visitor to the PRC post-1997, visiting China six times. Hun Sen invariably returns from these trips with a raft of bilateral agreements and pledges of aid. While Western countries, Japan and international agencies are still important donors (collectively pledging $601 million in 2006) they continually threaten to tie future aid to the enactment of much-needed judicial and political reforms, and the eradication of rampant corruption. In contrast, China does not tie economic assistance to improved governance. During Premier Wen’s visit, Hun Sen explicitly thanked Beijing for not linking the two issues, and rebuked other donors by stating “China talks less but does a lot” (Associated Press, April 11). In another sign of the close political relationship between the two countries, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni’s first overseas trip as head of state was to the PRC in August 2005.

Cambodia and China have also begun to forge a defense relationship commensurate with increased economic and political ties. Six months after the coup, the PRC delivered $2.8 million worth of military equipment to Cambodia (Xinhua, December 9, 1997). According to a Western defense attaché based in Phnom Penh, much of this equipment went to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) units loyal to Hun Sen. Since then Beijing has provided the RCAF with financial support for demobilization, construction materials for military barracks, schools and hospitals, and scholarships for 40 officers to undertake education and training courses in the PRC . China has also provided funds to refurbish the large military airfield at Kampong Chhnang, constructed by Chinese engineers in the mid-1970s for the Khmer Rouge (Interview, Phnom Penh, August 2004). Last year the PRC extended a $60 million loan for the purchase of six naval patrol boats (Agence Kampuchea Presse, March 11, 2005). China is now Cambodia’s largest provider of military aid, reappraising the role it played during the Khmer Rouge era.

What benefits does the PRC derive from its patronage of Hun Sen? Economically China has established itself as the number one player, and in Cambodia economic power translates into political influence. The PRC is also interested in exploiting the country’s natural resources, especially off-shore oil and gas. Yet the most significant benefits for China are political. Hun Sen has been very supportive of Beijing on issues related to Chinese sovereignty. After the coup the Prime Minister immediately ordered the closure of Taiwan’s de facto embassy, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. Since then Cambodia has become one of ASEAN’s strictest adherents of the “One China” policy. Hun Sen has banned government ministers from visiting Taiwan, attending Taiwanese-sponsored functions or meeting Taiwanese officials. The Cambodian government was also a vocal supporter of China’s 2005 anti-secession law that Hun Sen described as “highly necessary to the cause of China’s national reunification” (Xinhua, March 16, 2005).

On other issues important to China the Hun Sen government has been equally supportive. In May 1999 it condemned NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and in April 2001 offered its support to the Chinese government over the EP-3 reconnaissance plane incident. In 2002 Phnom Penh refused a visa to the Dalai Lama and clamped down on the activities of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The PRC has repeatedly expressed its gratitude to the Cambodian government for its support on these and other issues.

Beijing may also have encouraged Hun Sen to impede the establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT). When the idea of an international tribunal to try surviving members of the Khmer Rouge was first mooted, Beijing was vehemently opposed, fearing that court proceedings would expose the full extent of China’s support for the genocidal regime (China maintains it played no role in, and was not aware of, the genocide that claimed the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians. Yet with more than 15,000 advisers in the country at the time, it is difficult to believe that Beijing did not have a good understanding of what was going on in Cambodia). China’s patronage of the Khmer Rouge during 1975-1978 is not widely known among ordinary Cambodians and if the full extent of China’s role ever became common knowledge, a popular backlash against the PRC may result. The KRT looks set to begin hearings in 2007. It seems doubtful, however, that China’s role will come under close scrutiny: Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister and point man on relations with the PRC, will not stand trial.

Beijing’s patronage of Hun Sen may also give China long-term strategic benefits. The six patrol boats mentioned earlier will likely be based at Ream Naval Base in the south of the country. The PRC has provided funding to refurbish docking facilities at Ream, and Chinese companies have upgraded the nearby port of Sihanoukville (previously called Kompong Som). In the future, Chinese naval ships may become frequent visitors to Ream and Sihanoukville. Access to these ports offers the PRC two potential strategic advantages. First, a visiting Chinese naval flotilla could be used to put pressure on Hanoi during times of heightened Sino-Vietnamese tensions. Second, some observers have speculated that China has adopted a “string of pearls” strategy aimed at securing vulnerable sea lanes of communication and protecting seaborne energy supplies in particular. This strategy involves gaining naval access to ports located in countries friendly to the PRC. Ream or Sihanoukville might be one such “pearl” (others would be in Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

While Hun Sen’s Cambodia has become a close friend of China, one cannot discount the role of Vietnam. Hanoi put Hun Sen on the road to power in 1979 and acted as his patron throughout the 1980s. Hun Sen is still a frequent visitor to Hanoi and the CPP maintains close links with Vietnam. The Vietnamese leadership has been perturbed at their loss of influence in Cambodia post-1997, and has tried to win it back through economic initiatives. While Hun Sen has moved closer to China, he is unlikely to sever his links with Vietnam completely, as friendship with Hanoi enables him to play China and Vietnam off against each other. Yet China has two distinct advantages over Vietnam in the long-term competition for influence. First, Hun Sen cannot move too close to Hanoi because of strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia. Second, Beijing can offer Phnom Penh a much larger economic largesse than Hanoi.

Hun Sen is now Asia’s longest serving prime minister. He has shown no desire to relinquish power, and could remain in office for a decade or more. Under Hun Sen, Cambodian democracy has become increasingly illiberal and many observers fear the country is sliding toward one-party rule. Nevertheless, so long as he remains at the helm, China’s interests will almost certainly be advanced and protected.