On the eve of the Asean Summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday and pledged to double bilateral trade to $5 billion within five years. The Chinese leader also promised to provide grants and loans to Cambodia totaling more than $70 million. Alongside the financial largess, a token donation of $20,000 was made to retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s humanitarian efforts, an agreement was reached for more mine clearance training and equipment, and China reiterated its support for Cambodia’s UN Security Council bid.
At the same meeting, Cambodia agreed with China’s request to limit discussion of territorial claims in the South China Sea, which Cambodia has already said would not be included on the agenda of this week’s Asean summit.
Speaking to reporters after the two leaders met Saturday morning, Mr. Hun Sen’s assistant, Sry Thamarong, said Mr. Jintao asked that Cambodia ensure the South China Sea issue is not raised among countries not directly involved in the issue.
“Concerning the South China Sea, Samdech [Hun Sen] said we will try to set this problem in terms of Asean and China, not make this issue an international problem,” he said.
Mr. Thamarong said that Cambodia was committed to China’s vision of addressing the issue without outside interference.
“We want it to be solved by the parties within Asean and China that have claim, not in an international forum,” he stressed.
“China admires Cambodia in coordinating the issue to have peace and stability,” said Mr. Thamarong, adding that both parties agreed “slow steps” were necessary to finalizing a code of conduct on how to handle the dispute. It has been 10 years since China and Asean signed a non-binding declaration of conduct on the South China Sea and 20 years since the idea was first broached.
Claimed in part by four of Asean’s 10 member states, the South China Sea has proven a thorny issue for the regional body over the years.
While there have been few conflicts among Asean nations over the disputed territory, it has proven a divisive issue, with China pressuring countries friendly to its interests even as other Asean states have turned to the US and India to buttress their claims.
While Mr. Thamarong insisted the timing of Mr. Jintao’s visit, the first such encounter between a Chinese and Cambodian premier on Cambodian soil in 12 years, was merely coincidental to this week’s Asean summit, observers said it felt deliberate. Some worried about the ramifications of Cambodia’s willingness to cede to China’s wishes as chair of Asean.
“Certainly this is a conference for China to influence and pressure Cambodia in order to protect its own geopolitical interests,” said Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodia-based independent analyst.
“Some Asean countries may have lost confidence in Cambodia as a neutral chairman, especially when many countries in Asean would want to push forward negotiations on the South China Sea.”
Mr. Mong Hay warned that kowtowing to China could prove damaging in the long term.
“The Khmer Rouge was the climax to our subservience to China,” he said, adding that Cambodia appears to once again have placed itself at the geopolitical nexus of the US, China and Vietnam.
“We’re in that situation now and it’s dangerous for Cambodia…. It seems that our country has become increasingly subservient to China’s interests in the region.”
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, dismissed such criticisms, saying that money provided by China came with no strings attached.
“This donation is without conditions, so we respect each other and don’t interfere with each other,” he said on the sidelines of Saturday’s briefing.
“We aren’t under anyone’s pressure. We follow the principle of equality and independence,” Mr. Kuong insisted.
More likely than not, however, China’s thumbprint will continue to color Asean as it has in the past.
In US diplomatic cables published by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, there are numerous mentions of friction among Asean nations over China’s role in the region.
In one such cable in 2010, a Japanese diplomat is quoted as saying: “On the surface, and in front of cameras, the Chinese are friendly. But underneath, they are putting huge pressure on Southeast Asian countries and trying to divide them.”