For China, ‘Cambodia Is a Sideshow, But It’s a Loyal One’

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have a penchant for proverbs. “A Cambodian proverb likens trust to the growth of a tree,” he wrote in a letter published last Wednesday in the Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper, a day before his arrival here on a whistle-stop tour to make friends, wield influence and pass out cash.

—News Analysis—

“The traditional China-Cambodia friendship, tested by the times and a changing international landscape, has grown strong like a luxuriant tree thanks to efforts made by past leaders of both countries.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping last Thursday in Phnom Penh. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)
Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping last Thursday in Phnom Penh. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

He proceeded during his visit to praise Prime Minister Hun Sen as an “ironclad friend of China,” pledge $237 million in aid, erase $90 million in debt and oversee the signing of 31 agreements before departing for Bangladesh with a second dose of similar wisdom.

“As a Chinese proverb goes, ‘Only friendships built on sincerity can last long,’” Mr. Xi wrote in a letter carried by two Bangladeshi newspapers on Friday.

“Since the establishment of diplomatic ties 41 years ago, China has always regarded Bangladesh as its true friend and partner for development,” he said, before agreeing to another development deal: some 27 agreements worth an estimated $24 billion, according to Reuters.

Mr. Xi’s twin tours of two very different developing countries highlight China’s growing clout and its motives for choosing allies like Cambodia.

The low-lying countries have some superficial similarities: a slow emergence from 1970s mass killings, an economy moving from agriculture to garment manufacturing, diminishing levels of still-widespread poverty and relatively limited clout over neighbors.

But the differences, too, are stark: Bangladesh has more than 10 times as many people as Cambodia and is bordered by India, Beijing’s rival and a strong Dhaka ally.

Mr. Xi’s visits may share similar templates and public facades, but they are “two separate games,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

In Bangadesh, “you’re dealing with a country that sits next to India,” he said on Tuesday. “And its on China’s doorstep. Can India compete? It’s almost a poker game.”

Mr. Xi’s visit to Cambodia, on the other hand, came with less aid and different motives. “It’s just a good showcase to boost the prestige of the Hun Sen government,” he said.

Bangladesh also played a more integral role in China’s One Belt, One Road and Maritime Silk Road regional economic plans, Mr. Thayer said, contending that Cambodia had not originally been included in either initiative.

“With Bangladesh, you can get land routes, and rail lines are being built in Pakistan,” another key Chinese ally and counterweight to New Delhi. “Cambodia is a sideshow, but it’s a loyal one.”

Simon Shen, senior visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore, noted, however, that both countries figured highly in China’s regional plans.

From China’s perspective, “perhaps the value of Bangladesh in South Asia is similar to Cambodia in Southeast Asia,” he wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Cambodia has done China “quite a few big favors by putting the South China Sea dispute [relatively] aside,” he said, making it “arguably the ASEAN country that is most friendly to China.”

“It would be to China’s benefit to continue economically supporting/digesting Cambodia” into its foreign development plans, he added.

China likewise sees both economic and foreign policy reasons to engage with Bangladesh: cheap labor for Chinese investors and a strategic position as “gatekeeper of South Asian radical Muslims from China” and neighbor to potential rival India, Shen said.

China itself received large-scale aid from Western donors and institutions as recently as 2008, according to Zha Daojiong, an international studies professor at Peking University in Beijing.

“China was on the receiving end of an international growth/development scheme, just like Cambodia and other participants in the ‘Belt and Road’ scheme today,” Mr. Daojiong wrote in an email.

“Viewed against the background of the post-WWII history of international development, the Belt and Road scheme is not that unique or even creative. Its fate depends more on the countries that participate than on China,” he said.

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