Cambodia’s development “could not be detached” from Chinese aid, Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong said on Monday, joining a chorus of officials from both parties praising a relationship that appears to be deepening over similar stances on the South China Sea.
The comments came after Cambodia angered Asean neighbors and Western allies for refusing to join them in rebuking China’s vast territorial claims in the sea.
Cambodia characterizes its South China Sea position as neutral and declined to join other Asean members in a joint statement praising a July 12 ruling by a U.N.-backed tribunal that invalidated China’s claims, which are contested by the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
However, Asean diplomats have grumbled that Cambodia is merely serving as Beijing’s lackey in return for more than half a billion dollars in aid it received from China days after the verdict. The government has repeatedly downplayed Chinese influence on its foreign policy.
“It’s two different issues,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said last week.
In a Monday meeting with China’s outgoing ambassador to Cambodia, Bu Jianguo, Mr. Namhong—who served for years as foreign minister before stepping down in April—emphasized the importance of Chinese aid in Cambodia’s development.
“Cambodia’s progress today could not be detached from China’s aid,” Mr. Namhong told the ambassador, according to Chinese state news service Xinhua. Cooperation between the countries had been “further strengthened and expanded” during Ms. Bu’s three- year tenure, Mr. Namhong added.
Mr. Sounry referred questions about the meeting to Mr. Namhong, who could not be reached.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan agreed with Mr. Namhong, saying that Chinese direct investment, as well as infrastructure projects such as bridges and roads, were crucial to maintaining regional links.
“Without Chinese aid, we go nowhere,” he said.
Political analyst Ou Virak disputed the notion that China deserved so much credit for developing the country.
“I think that it would be a bit unfair to credit China with development in Cambodia,” he said. “Most of the credit should go to the people. It has nothing to do with Cambodia or China.”
China has steadily increased its aid to Cambodia. In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Cambodia between $500 and $700 million in annual grants and loans—up from roughly $92 million in 2007. Critics say there is little oversight of how the aid is spent, but Mr. Hun Sen has praised China’s hands-off approach.
Speaking during a ceremony inaugurating a Chinese-funded road project in Kompong Speu province on Tuesday, Ambassador Bu said the deepening ties between Cambodia and China actually benefited Asean as a whole.
“Cambodia’s neutral and fair stance over the South China Sea issue has importantly contributed to protecting China-Asean good cooperation and to maintaining peace and stability in the region,” she said, according to Xinhua.
Mr. Hun Sen used the ceremony to announce that he would accept what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs described as the “very special and significant” Asean Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Asean Leadership Forum in Vientiane this weekend. Past recipients include the former heads of state of Malaysia and Singapore, as well as a Malaysian monarch.
In a speech, the prime minister credited his fans in Cambodia for the award.
“It’s the result of the efforts of our compatriots who voted for and supported the Cambodian People’s Party and voted for me to be prime minister,” he said.
“I thank the citizens of Kompong Speu province, people who are here, as well as citizens across the Kingdom of Cambodia who voted again and again for the CPP and for me to lead the country.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)