China’s vast influence over Cambodia has come under scrutiny following a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Phnom Penh on the eve of a major regional summit, during which Cambodia tried to exclude the South China Sea territorial dispute from the official agenda.
Hu on Monday concluded a four-day visit to the capital during which he met with King Norodom Sihamoni, as well as his counterpart, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
During the visit, ahead of Cambodia’s hosting of the 2012 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on April 3-4, Hu signed a total of 10 infrastructure cooperation agreements and pledged tens of millions of dollars in grants and loans. The two sides also agreed to double bilateral trade by 2017.
Cambodia is this year’s chair of the regional ASEAN body, which also includes Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
At a Saturday sit-down between Hu and Hun Sen, both countries agreed that the South China Sea dispute, which involves four ASEAN member states, should remain an issue to be solved bilaterally.
Phnom Penh reversed an earlier decision and has put the South China Sea on the official agenda for the final day of an ASEAN summit on Wednesday following pressure from some ASEAN states.
Cambodia’s close relationship with China has drawn the ire of critics who say that Beijing’s “no strings attached” style of providing aid to Phnom Penh has allowed Hun Sen’s government to avoid international pressure on human rights violations.
They add that China has made off with the lion’s share of gains from infrastructure projects while Cambodia slowly loses its precious natural resources.
But Prince Sisowath Thomico, the nephew and former advisor to Cambodia’s previous King Norodom Sihanouk, defended China’s presence in Cambodia, saying that Beijing had done much to safeguard his country’s sovereignty and bring much-needed investment to the impoverished nation.
“The Chinese and Cambodian friendship is a life-and-death issue for Cambodia. It provides us with a life of freedom, sovereignty and independence, and is extremely vital,” Prince Thomico told RFA’s Khmer service in an interview over the weekend, adding that China “also receives benefits from us.”
The Prince said that the continued close friendship between the two nations has been maintained by the former Cambodian king, who now lives with his wife in Beijing, and whom Hu had contacted by telephone immediately upon his arrival in Phnom Penh.
“King Norodom Sihanouk realized the benefits of our countries’ cooperation in the 1950s and has strived to maintain ties since then,” he said.
The prince also defended Chinese investment in Cambodia, saying that Phnom Penh was to blame for failing to regulate projects that had led to the destruction of the country’s natural resources.
He called on Hun Sen’s government to do a better job of ensuring that Chinese investors do not encroach upon the property of Cambodian villagers in rural areas.
“The government must be responsible for land rights. The Chinese companies lack knowledge of the land issue. We can’t criticize them, as the land is under government control,” he said.
"But I admit that Chinese companies are involved with Cambodia’s land issue,” he said, adding that if companies which plan to invest in Cambodia were more aware of the country’s property laws they might be less likely to commit abuses.
The Prince said that it was important for Cambodia to further its international ties, instead of operating independently and avoiding reliance on China.
“If there are American companies which wish to invest in Cambodia, that is no problem. We don’t close our doors to America, Australia, or Italy. But the Western countries don’t want to invest here,” he said.
“So if American companies don’t come, please don’t blame us for inviting Chinese companies.”
Prince Thomico said that Chinese influence in Cambodia should not negatively affect the country as long as investors operate according to the law.
A bad influence
But his statement drew criticism from prominent political commentator Lao Mong Hay, who said that Chinese investment has drained Cambodia of its resources without supporting local growth and that Beijing’s model of governance has led Phnom Penh to be less transparent in its dealings with the people.
He said that President Hu’s visit ahead of the ASEAN summit was intentionally planned to solicit help from the regional body’s chair in keeping the South China Sea dispute off of the negotiating table.
“The Chinese president’s visit and other Chinese influences have pressured Cambodia into supporting its stance,” he said, adding that Chinese companies exert more influence in Cambodia than other foreign firms.
Lao Mong Hay said that while Cambodia has benefitted in the short term from doing business with China, the relationship would have a negative effect in the long term.
“For now, Cambodia is gaining economically from China, but in the meantime we are losing our natural resources,” he said, pointing specifically to the loss of forestation and mining metals to Chinese companies.
He said that Chinese investment has led to more benefits for China than for Cambodia, as most China-backed projects underway in Cambodia employ only Chinese workers.
And he blamed Chinese policies, which he said set a bad example for the Cambodian government by not setting any prerequisites for aid.
“Chinese operates under an ethos of ‘let it be,’ with our encouragement. China does not much care about government transparency. They think only about their benefit,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has often praised China for providing aid with “no strings attached.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.