After Sea Decision, Chinese Funds Flow In

China will provide Cambodia with more than half a billion dollars in aid, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced yesterday, less than a week after Cambodia again declined to support an Asean statement critical of Beijing’s claims to the hotly contested South China Sea.

One of the largest grants ever awarded to Cambodia, the aid comes in the wake of Tuesday’s verdict at The Hague rejecting China’s sweeping claims to territory in the South China Sea. The waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and others, and reports on Thursday said Cambodia played a leading role in scuttling an Asean statement supporting the verdict.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the prime minister's office building in Phnom Penh in April. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the prime minister’s office building in Phnom Penh in April. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

Mr. Hun Sen said on his Facebook page that Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang offered the funding during a meeting in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where they are attending the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting.

“The Chinese prime minister announced that China would provide 3,600 million yuan, or about $600 million, for a period of three years from 2016 to 2018,” he wrote. At current exchange rates, 3.6 billion yuan is worth closer to $538 million.

“At my request, our Chinese friends have agreed to provide funding for the electoral process, health, education and clean water, such as ponds and wells, that will benefit our people,” he added.

The announcement comes less than a week after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement reiterating the government’s position that China and the Philippines should resolve territorial claims bilaterally.

“Cambodia views that this arbitration case is to settle the dispute brought by the Philippines against China, and this proceeding is not related with all of the Asean Member States,” the statement said.

“Therefore, Cambodia will not join in expressing any common position on the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that will render its decision on the dispute between the Philippines and China.”

On Thursday, Reuters reported that Asean members had failed to unify around a statement supporting the tribunal’s ruling.

It would not be the first time that Cambodia has sided with China in disputes that pit it against the majority of Asean member states.

International media reported that Cambodia thwarted a similar statement supporting the Philippines in June. And as chair of Asean in 2012, Cambodia ended its tenure without issuing a traditional joint statement after refusing to allow any mention of disputes in the South China Sea, leading to speculation that the government’s support had been bought with generous Chinese aid.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he didn’t know the motives behind China’s massive aid package.

“Well, why don’t you check with China?” he said on Friday.

Mr. Siphan said the timing of the aid was pure coincidence. “It could be today, it could be tomorrow,” he said. “We need money. If the U.S. gives us it, we take it. The E.U. gives us it, we take it.”

Others were more skeptical.

“In Cambodia, economic aid buys China political influence,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“China has used Cambodia to scupper ASEAN unity on several occasions,” Mr. Storey said in an email. “By doing China’s bidding in ASEAN, Cambodia is rewarded with economic largesse. But it certainly isn’t making itself popular with its fellow ASEAN members.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, noted that the aid also came amid a crackdown on the opposition in Cambodia, which has drawn fire from Western donors such as the E.U.

“This new grant will be seen as part and parcel of China’s patronage and leverage over Cambodia at a time when the Hun Sen government has been criticised by the international community for blatant human rights abuses and authoritarian tendencies,” Mr. Pongsudhirak said in an email.

“The more Cambodia is alienated and isolated from the Western-dominated international community, the more the Chinese can move in with their largesse and diplomatic succor.”

Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said she worried the aid would not be doled out transparently.

“I hear also that it will go to wells and ponds, which the ruling party uses to attract voters through gifts,” Ms. Sochua said. “Generally, the loan and assistance from China, it’s difficult to get records and then monitor for accountability.”

National Election Committee (NEC) spokesman Hang Puthea said he did not know how much of the money would go toward facilitating upcoming elections.

“If any country wishes to help the electoral process without imposing conditions that would affect the NEC’s neutrality, the NEC will consider accepting it to ensure the electoral process will be accepted by all parties concerned,” Mr. Puthea said.

Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly denied claims that Chinese aid has hampered Cambodian sovereignty, and has praised the Asian giant’s hands-off policy toward human rights, corruption and other talking points repeatedly raised by Western donors.

“Cambodia is not goods to be bought by anyone as a sovereign state and as a responsible member of Asean,” the prime minister said in 2012.

After former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao offered Cambodia $600 million in 2006, Mr. Hun Sen explained the appeal of Chinese aid.

“China talks little but does a lot,” he said.

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