From diplomats to government leaders to shop owners, many people in Cambodia are saying the visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Monday signals a golden age of economic cooperation with the regional superpower.
But not everyone agrees on where this new relationship with an old ally will take Cambodia.
Since China and Cambodia resumed economic relations in 1992—after a 13-year hiatus—trade between the two countries has increased more than tenfold, rising to $160 million this year, according to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia.
China ranks fourth among foreign investors. It’s a leader in the garment sector, providing money and know-how for one of Cambodia’s most important job-generating industries.
And China has shown more staying power than other countries. After factional fighting broke out in 1997 other countries withdrew investment from Cambodia. China on the other hand tripled its input, investing more than $76 million in 1998, making it second only to Taiwan, which China considers a rogue state.
“Most of us agreed that the crisis…was not too serious,” said Jimmy Gao, head of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia. “Afterwards the situation proved that we were correct.”
Some say China capitalized on the opportunity offered by the fighting—and not merely for economic profit.
China has long had its eye on Cambodia as a potential strategic foothold in Southeast Asia, observers say. For much of the last 50 years, it has enjoyed a special relationship with Cambodia, grounded in the warm personal bonds between King Norodom Sihanouk and China’s leaders.
That relationship soured during the 10-year occupation of China’s rival, Vietnam. But in the 1990s, China again began to look to Cambodia as an ally.
With the withdrawal of US aid and the cooling of Cambodia’s relationship with the West in 1997, China saw its chance and seized the opportunity to fill the vacuum.
The Cambodian government welcomed its new patron.
“Our rulers…seem to be using the Chinese card to counterbalance Cambodia’s relationship with the US,” said Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
He pointed out that in the 1960s, then-Prince Sihanouk was caught in a similar position. Having been rebuffed by Western leaders and feeling their demands on Cambodia were too onerous, the prince increasingly leaned on his ally, China, for support.
Today, without Cold War rivalries to spur Western interest in the region and with increasing numbers of Chinese settling here, Cambodia is vulnerable to becoming a satellite of its superpower neighbor, Lao Mong Hay said. “Now it is more dangerous than ever before.”
China has consistently voiced a policy of not violating Cambodia’s sovereignty. However, China has from time to time shaped Cambodian domestic affairs, most notoriously by backing the Khmer Rouge. China was the principal financial supporter of the ultra-Maoist group during its 1975-1979 regime, and it continued to support the rebels well into the 1980s.
Some observers see China using its clout here to block a proposed tribunal of Khmer Rouge leaders, whom many hold responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians.
“I know they’ll come up with their traditional refrain of non-interference [but] there’s a double-meaning to that,” said Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot.
In terms of the proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal, touting non-interference is a warning to other countries, along with the UN, “to butt out,” Mailhot said.
Another Chinese interest is Cambodia’s recent admission into Asean. Some observers fear China will use aid to pressure Cambodia to act as a proxy to push its own interests on issues such as its claim to the contested Spratley Islands.
“Under the table, the money talks,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. “Whatever China wants, China will have.”
Although China is not one of Cambodia’s top donors, it delivers aid in forms more palatable to the government, observers say. It comes as capital equipment for industry and practical training for manufacturing and farming.
And, while Western donors have held the government to commitments such as demobilizing the military and improving Cambodia’s human rights record, China makes no such demands.
But government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, attending the launch of a new Chinese-language daily newspaper in Phnom Penh last Thursday, denied that China has that kind of clout.
He pointed out that Japan, for instance, is a bigger donor, and its aid also comes without strings. “[China] is a big country, but it is not as rich as Japan,” he said.
Others say that Chinese aid can in fact damage Cambodia if it is given out indiscriminately. In the interests of realpolitik, China will sponsor governments that hurt the Cambodian people, Lao Mong Hay said. “So long as the regime in Cambodia is serving China’s interests, China doesn’t care what kind of rulers Cambodia has.”
He warns that if China doesn’t act sensitively, it will face a backlash in Cambodia.
For Cambodians, the wounds of the Khmer Rouge period are still fresh. As the country becomes increasingly democratic and well-educated, its citizens will become more conscious of China’s hand in Cambodia’s civil war, he said. Calls for a Chinese apology, already sounded by students in Phnom Penh this week, will become more strident.
“We cannot afford to antagonize a big superpower,” he said. “But China needs to reassure Cambodia that it means well.”