Cambodians markedly prefer the leadership role assumed by the US in Southeast Asia to the role being played by China, according to a poll released Friday.
Following US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit last week–during which she cautioned against over-reliance on China–and days after China announced an estimated $1.6 billion in infrastructure deals, Cambodia’s attitudes towards both countries are under close scrutiny.
According to the poll conducted by the US-based polling firm Gallup between April and August of this year and released on the occasion of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia, 56 percent of Cambodians approve of US leadership while only 35 percent approve of China’s role in the region.
“US leadership has an approval advantage in Asia over the leaderships of China and India–a positive sign for the US as it jockeys for influence with these two economic giants,” said an analysis accompanying the poll, in which fewer than a third of the 1,000 respondents expressed any opinion on India.
US Embassy spokesman Mark Wenig suggested yesterday that the US’ popularity likely stemmed from funding health and education programs aimed at assisting Cambodians and from its advocacy for democracy.
“Our chief goal is helping Cambodia become a sustainable democracy with respect for human rights that can play a positive role in the region,” said Mr Wenig, who declined to comment on the Sino-US popularity gap.
Of those interviewed for the poll, 39 percent refused to comment on US leadership or said they had no opinion while 58 percent declined to comment on China.
Mr Wenig attributed the Cambodian public’s willingness to comment on the leadership of the US to that country’s high profile internationally and to the international popularity of Mr Obama, whose election “showed the possibilities in America.”
Chinese Embassy spokesman Qian Hai declined to comment on the specifics of the poll and quibbled with its implicit assumption that China was pursuing a leadership role.
“We don’t want to be a leader, we just want to have good cooperation with foreign governments,” said Mr Qian. “We treat all other countries as equal partners.”
China has recently stepped up its official assistance to Cambodia. On Nov 1, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong announced that China would provide $600 million to finance the construction of a rail line between Phnom Penh and Vietnam. On Thursday, the National Bank of China took on $591 million in debt from MobiTel, Cambodia’s largest mobile operator, while top Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo announced that China was cooperating with the Cambodian government on 23 infrastructure projects worth an estimated $1.6 billion.
Asked about Chinese influence during her visit last week, Ms Clinton said, “I think that there are also important issues that Cambodia must raise with China,” specifically citing several hydropower dams within China that block the flow of the Mekong River.