Stand by me

By: Laura J. Snook - Posted on: January 11, 2012 | Cambodia

Sino-Cambodian relations have moved beyond an innocent courtship

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“We will be back.” It was with these immortal words that, on March 25 1970, Chinese Ambassador Kang Maozhao boarded a Swiss Air flight to escape the US-backed Lon Nol regime that had seized Phnom Penh.

His comment was to prove rather prescient: four decades later, China has fortified its presence in Cambodia such that it’s now the tiny Kingdom’s most powerful ally. As Beijing’s protégé assumes chairmanship of Asean, this ‘special relationship’ warrants a biopsy. It is one that far transcends pure economics.

The friendship itself is anything but new. In 1296, Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan arrived at the temples of Angkor and spent the following year writing a report, from within the court of King Indravarman III, on the customs of Cambodia. It remains the source of much of our understanding of the ancient Khmer empire and its intricacies, just as descendants of the Chinese merchants who migrated here a thousand years ago remain stalwarts of Cambodia’s economy.

Seven centuries later, China has upped the ante. Since 1953, when Cambodia won independence, Beijing has laboured to limit US, Thai and Vietnamese influence by backing a succession of Cambodian strongmen, as noted by Dr Ian Storey of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in China’s Tightening Relationship with Cambodia. During the 1960s, it was King Norodom Sihanouk; between 1975 and 1978, notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot; since 1997, Prime Minister Hun Sen (who, with China’s backing, wrested power from co-prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a bloody coup in 1997 and is now Asia’s longest-serving premier). In return, China continues to net a number of strategic and political pay-offs.

One such windfall came in the 1960s, when Sihanouk campaigned at the United Nations for the Republic of China (Taiwan) to be expelled, and for China mainland to be given a seat instead. The intervention helped break China’s isolation – a favour that would not be forgotten. Following Sihanouk’s ouster by Lon Nol, Beijing immediately set about re-creating Cambodian autonomy. Mao Tse Tung told the exiled King: “You must tell us what you need. If we’ve got it, you’ll have it. Anything we give you is nothing compared to what you give us by heading the struggle of the Cambodian people.”

Supporting Cambodia, he concluded, “…is like supporting ourselves”. In a blistering speech at Tiananmen Square, Mao later reasserted that support. In response to the ongoing threat of world war, he said, China would continue to support Third World struggles it considered just, ranging from the Palestinian cause to that of Cambodians, and he implored other anti-imperialist nations to follow suit.

By the time Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge five years later, Sino-Cambodian relations had the allure of a Hollywood romance. Whenever Sihanouk visited China, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai would personally greet his royal guest, escort him to and from the airport, and stage lavish banquets in his honour. Sihanouk and his wife, Monique, became firm favourites of Chinese Communist Party propagandists and were revered by the public as if they were movie stars.

Beijing’s show of solidarity has yet to falter. Cambodia’s lack of economic diversification means it welcomes China’s patronage, and in 2004 it became the country’s most generous foreign investor. The opening of Cambodia’s first Chinese-language bookstore in October last year is testament to its ties to the Middle Kingdom. The shelves of Xinzhi Books are graced with 80,000 titles covering general education, social science, literature, lifestyle, children, economics, science and technology, and ancient history. At the time of its launch, The Chinese Association in Cambodia told press agency Xinhua that more than 700,000 Chinese-blood descendants were living in the country, which had 56 Chinese schools and more than 30,000 students.

In December, Cambodia opened the country’s largest hydropower dam, a $280m Chinese-funded project. The Kamchay dam in Kampot province has been condemned by what Hun Sen calls “extreme environmentalists” for its failure to acknowledge environmental concerns. Nine more dams, at least four of which will also be Chinese-funded, are scheduled to begin operations by 2019.

Last June, 257 Chinese military trucks rolled into Phnom Penh. A month earlier, defence ministers from both sides had met to discuss strengthening military cooperation. A few weeks later, Hun Sen and Chinese Ambassador Pan Guang-xue inaugurated the Cambodian-Chinese Friendship Bridge at Prek Kdam.

Perhaps one of the finest examples of this bonhomie came on the sidelines of an Asean summit back in 2002. As reported in The Diplomat, Hun Sen complained about the heat and apologised about the faulty air-conditioning as he sat down with then-Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. “I like it hot,” China’s number two famously replied. He then calmly wrote off Cambodia’s entire debt, about $2 billion.

Beijing, described by Hun Sen as Cambodia’s “most trusted friend” during Vice-President Xi Jinping’s visit in December 2009, posits itself as a ‘good neighbour’ and insists its help comes with no strings attached. “China respects the political decisions of Cambodia,” Hun Sen has said. “They are quiet, but at the same time they build bridges and roads, and there are no complicated conditions.”

In practice, this translates into soft loans free of any preconditions relating to human rights or good governance. And therein, say critics, lies the problem. Why does China continue to pour billions of dollars into this tiny post-conflict country at risk of provoking Washington’s wrath? “China is not there as the great charity,” responds Joel Brinkley, author of Cambodia’s Curse. “It wants something in return.”

The People’s Republic certainly has its eye on Cambodia’s natural resources, offshore oil and gas in particular, but the greatest benefit Beijing stands to gain as the country’s main economic player is, writes Dr Storey, political influence. Hun Sen has proven a loyal – and vocal – supporter of Chinese sovereignty and is one of the strictest adherents of the ‘One China’ policy. In 1999, Phnom Penh condemned Nato’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

Beijing may also have encouraged Phnom Penh’s efforts to stymie the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, given its role in supporting the genocidal regime. Privileged access to the deep-water port in Sihanoukville and Ream Naval Base further south could prove strategically advantageous as China reasserts itself in the South China Sea.

That does not automatically equate to aggression, others argue. When Mao Tse Tung addressed the crowds in Tiananmen Square back in 1970, he equated his support for Cambodia with a commitment to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, first enshrined in a treaty signed by China and India in 1954. Those principles – mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence – have underscored the bonds between Beijing and Phnom Penh ever since.

Sophie Richardson, author of China, Cambodia and the Five Principles of Coexistence, argues that Beijing is a benign benefactor. “Although one doesn’t hear the phrase ‘Five Principles’ as frequently these days, the principles clearly continue to set the boundaries for Chinese policy, ranging from vast sums of unconditional aid to resistance to international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, to a near-hysterical reaction to the Dalai Lama’s meetings with world leaders.

I think the beliefs that contributed to the development of the principles still hold – the sense of victimhood, a need to attend to priorities at home, wariness about other countries’ intentions – though rising nationalism may force the Chinese Communist Party to take a more visible, aggressive stance. While it’s absolutely true that there are ways Five Principles-based diplomacy directly contributed to some horrific outcomes – not least in keeping the Khmer Rouge regime alive such that it could slaughter innocent people – there are other ways they’ve dictated more positive results than what otherwise might be expected.”

The verdict is far from unanimous. Yutaka Aoki, a senior official at the Japanese embassy in Phnom Penh, has described China as “a frightening figure. Asean members fear that China may take away foreign investment. They see China as a major competitor rather than a partner.” To date, however, there has been only one recorded instance of Beijing exploiting its economic presence for political ends. In 2009, it became clear that the Chinese could call in extraordinary favours. The civilised world watched in dismay as, under heavy pressure, Cambodian authorities flagrantly violated international law by wresting 20 ethnic Uighur asylum-seekers out of the UN’s hands and bundling them off to China where they faced execution for deadly riots in China’s Xinjiang region. Within 48 hours, China had pledged $1.2 billion in assistance to Phnom Penh as an apparent reward.

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has already vowed that, as the new chair of Asean, Cambodia will do everything in its power to smooth relations between the regional body and China. As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew wrote in a June 2009 US diplomatic cable later published by anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks, Asean’s three poorest members serve as China’s eyes and ears in the region. Within hours, everything discussed in Asean meetings is known in Beijing, thanks to its close ties with Cambodia, Burma and Laos. “Under Hun Sen,” Dr Storey concludes, “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.”