Everybody who is anybody attended the reception held here last month by the Chinese Embassy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the communist regime.
Even Prime Minister Hun Sen, Minister of Cabinet Sok An and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who often shun public social functions, attended.
What was more remarkable was that Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, whose relationship has been cold since their two parties fought each other in 1997, met privately for about an hour.
“The Chinese were the only ones who could get Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh together in the same room,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “That was a big deal.”
It also illustrated the level of influence China currently has in Cambodia.
For the first time since the Vietnamese drove Chinese advisers out with the Khmer Rouge 20 years ago, China is gradually gaining a foothold in Cambodia.
In just a few years, China has become a significant bilateral donor to Cambodia and is among the top five foreign investors here.
China also provided high-profile political support to Hun Sen in the past year, publicly backing his claim that the fate of former Khmer Rouge leaders should be left in the hands of Cambodians.
Today marks the closest Beijing and Phnom Penh have been since the Chinese-backed Pol Pot regime collapsed, analysts agree.
Khieu Kanharith, who survived the Pol Pot regime and is now secretary of state at the Information Ministry, said he supports working closely with China.
“We can’t turn a blind eye to China [having been] friends with the Khmer Rouge, but for our economy and our survival, a good relationship with China is vital,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Neang Phat, a director at the Ministry of Defense, agreed.
“Like Hun Sen has said, we have to bury the past.”
‘Foothold in SE Asia’
China has always looked for a friend in Southeast Asia. China’s top choice for a little brother, Vietnam, has traditionally been more of an enemy and competitor to China—which left Cambodia to fill the role.
“China needs to have a foothold somewhere,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “China doesn’t care who rules the country as long as the ruler is amenable to help China maintain its strategic positions.”
For Cambodia, China has been the one country that’s regularly been there in good times and bad.
“China is a very nice card for Cambodia,” said a senior Western diplomat who spent several years in China and asked not to be named. “When all hell breaks loose, you know they’ll come through.”
China has also acted as a buffer to protect Cambodia from the ambitions of its more powerful neighbors, officials say.
“We are sandwiched in between Vietnam and Thailand,” Khieu Kanharith said. “It’s in the interest of Cambodia to be friends with China because of its weight in the region.”
Since Cambodia’s independence in 1953, leaders here have always sought solace in China in rough times and in moments of isolation.
King Norodom Sihanouk went to China after he was overthrown in a 1970 coup d’etat. Pol Pot, feeling rebuffed by Vietnamese leaders, became a protege of Beijing in the late 1960s and looked to China as his main ally. China was the principal backer of the Khmer Rouge, and in 1979 went so far as to punish Vietnam for invading by instigating a border war.
More recently, Hun Sen turned toward China after the CPP removed and eliminated political rivals following the factional fighting in July 1997, which cooled Cambodia’s relations with the international community.
‘Marriage of Convenience’
During the 10-year Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, the country had little official contact with China, which continued to support Khmer Rouge rebels who were trying to oust the Vietnamese.
After the Vietnamese left in 1989 and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991, the West effectively filled the aid vacuum. It wasn’t until tanks rolled on the streets in July 1997, scattering donors and investors, that Phnom Penh’s leadership had reason to look again to China.
Relations with the international community cooled as evidence of political murders mounted, and many Western countries suspended non-humanitarian aid. Investors pulled out, frightened by the political turbulence and dragged down by the regional economic crisis that began in mid-1997. Asean denied membership.
“In such a case, you always look for a friend,” said Sok Chenda Sophea, secretary general of the Council for the Development of Cambodia. “You look around at who will blame me, who will help me, who will abandon me.”
China was ready.
“After the ’97 fighting it was clear who was in charge. China always practices realpolitik. They always go with the one in power,” Kao Kim Hourn said.
Beijing’s courtship of the Cambodian leadership peaked in mid-1996, a Cambodian government adviser said, when Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and other dignitaries were hosted in regal fashion by Beijing.
“For China, this was a golden opportunity to export their surplus of people around the world. Not only Cambodia, but in Burma, and the Philippines, China can develop a worldwide network through Chinese communities,” said the adviser, who asked not to be identified.
Hun Sen and the rest of the leadership began reaping the dividends of the new relationship. China signed a $6 million aid package in August 1997 to build hundreds of wells. Sar Kheng went to China again, this time to discuss security affairs.
Hun Sen rewarded China by announcing a few weeks after the fighting that the Taiwanese representative office here was being shut down because of allegations of terrorism. Taiwan was and is a major investor in Cambodia, but it didn’t matter. Since then Hun Sen has reiterated his one-China policy stance.
Although Hun Sen left the Chinese-trained Khmer Rouge in 1977, was taught by the Vietnamese to fight the Khmer Rouge and came to power through Vietnam, experts say he is a pragmatic man who knew he needed a powerful ally after the factional fighting in 1997. That ally, at least on the short term, was China.
“Hun Sen is a very clever politician,” said Yum Sui Sang, chairman of the China, Hong Kong and Macau Business Association of Cambodia. “Going to the side of China is most safe. If he doesn’t go to China, America can throw him down easily.”
Just as Phnom Penh’s leadership has effectively exonerated Beijing of any responsibility for the Khmer Rouge atrocities, China has not let Hun Sen’s past ties to Vietnam dampen their enthusiasm for Cambodia’s strongman.
“The Chinese are incredibly sophisticated political analysts,” said US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who was director of Chinese affairs at the US State Department and served in China for seven years.
“They know that Hun Sen used Vietnam as much as they used him,” he said.
Symbols of China’s influence here are numerous. The Chinese Embassy is one of the largest embassies in the country.
With a large ethnic Chinese community here, it’s not unusual to see business signs written in Chinese.
Most businesses in Phnom Penh close for the Chinese New Year.
Top Cambodian leaders, including Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, Defense co-Ministers Tea Banh and Prince Sisowath Sirirath, RCAF Commander in Chief Ke Kim Yan and National Police Director General Hok Lundy, have visited China in the past 18 months.
King Sihanouk has long had a close relationship with China. Beijing was his second home during his years abroad or in exile.
“The founding of the People’s Republic of China is one of the most important events in the 20th century,” King Sihanouk said last month for the 50th anniversary of the communist regime.
But Cambodia’s relationship with China has become too close for some.
“Hun Sen is becoming more and more of a subservient ally of China,” Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy said. “He would do anything to please China.”
Although some experts didn’t go that far in describing China’s influence, they said Cambodia must, at the least, be responsive to China’s wants.
“Cambodia always has to think twice before saying no to China,” Wiedemann said. “But Cambodia also has—despite its relative small size—taken very seriously its sovereignty. It doesn’t take easily to getting pushed around, even by the Chinese.”
Hor Namhong emphatically denied China has any influence over Cambodian policies.
“That is a wrong perception,” the foreign minister said. “Cambodia is very independent. Sometimes we ask for help, but we never accept domination of a foreign country.”
Chinese Ambassador Yan Ting Ai also maintained that China and Cambodia have a normal, friendly relationship based on peaceful coexistence and mutual respect of sovereignty—not submissive to a dominant power.
“Our assistance doesn’t have any conditions attached to it,” he said.
Cambodia has also done its share of courting Western countries and institutions, such as the US, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank with promises of reform. And Japan, not China, is the biggest donor here.
Still, Cambodia’s close relationship with China may have harmful effects, whether they are intended or not, said the senior Western diplomat who asked not to be named.
“China is a country of 1.5 billion,” he said. “You’re in bed with an elephant. Even if you’re friends, if the elephant rolls over, it’s going to hurt.”
‘China always shows support’
Despite drawbacks related to China’s perceived influence over Cambodia, there are definite benefits to Cambodia having a strong relationship with China, experts say.
“China has many possibilities to help Cambodia,” Hor Namhong said. “China is a very big power in the world.”
Because Asean has always been wary of China’s influence in the region, Cambodia was able to use its close relationship with China to pressure Asean into letting Cambodia enter the regional group, said Kao Kim Hourn.
China also has been among the top five foreign investors in Cambodia over the last six years. From 1994 to June 1999, Chinese business interests pledged $213.4 million toward Cambodia, according to projects approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia. Yet it’s unclear how many of those projects have been started.
“We try to get investment from everywhere, but China is more keen to do it because of the historical, political and geographical ties,” Sok Chenda Sophea said. “We cannot dream the US will come here, like in Thailand.”
China is also a major bilateral donor, giving large amounts of aid to Cambodia, including millions to improve roads, and build water pumps, hundreds of wells, and several dams. China has also donated equipment for the military and for agricultural purposes.
But Cambodia’s relationship with China is more about politics than economics and aid, some experts say.
“Hun Sen realizes China cannot replace the West when it comes to economic development,” the senior Western diplomat said. “But what is comforting to him is the Chinese would back him when it comes to notions of sovereignty, the integrity of borders.”
And while many Western countries criticize Cambodia for its human rights violations and pressure it to implement reforms, China has stayed mainly silent on Cambodia’s domestic policies, Khieu Kanharith said.
It’s issues like the Khmer Rouge trial where China plays a key role in helping Cambodia’s leadership. The US had been pushing for an international tribunal, but the issue has not been formally brought up in the UN Security Council because China has threatened to veto such a proposal.
“Cambodia can get a lot of things done if it stays close to China,” said an Asian diplomat who asked not to be named. “China is willing to use its veto power to vote against an international tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge.”
Cambodian leaders rejected an international tribunal, saying they must maintain national sovereignty. A few weeks ago, however, Hun Sen said he had agreed to a US proposal that bridges the gap somewhat.
“Some leaders of Cambodia told me the issue of the Khmer Rouge is an internal affair and Cambodia supports this opinion,” said Chinese Ambassador Yan Ting Ai. “Foreign countries cannot say anything about another country’s internal affairs.”
Cambodia’s entrance into Asean in April could signal a move away from China, some experts say.
“Asean is our window to engage with other great, powerful countries rather than relying on one external partner,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “It lets us have more room.”
Asean countries are the major investors in Cambodia, even ahead of China. Between 1994 to June 1999, Malaysia and Singapore invested more than China.
Asean was formed about 30 years ago in part to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansion and influence, and relations between the two have always been tense.
Sok Chenda Sophea, however, said he does not see a conflict between being good friends with both China and Asean countries.
“Most of Malaysia’s overseas investment is in China,” he said. “We have to be friends with everybody. To be close with someone doesn’t exclude having a good relationship with others.”
Hor Namhong denies there are any tensions between Asean and China and maintains warm relations can be cultivated with both.
“Cambodia is working for a strong relationship with Asean and bilateral relationship with China,” he said.
As for the future, most experts say unless the leadership here changes, Cambodia’s relationship with China will only grow stronger.
“At this stage and in the near future, there is no coziness between Cambodian rulers and Asean rulers, especially old Asean countries,” Lao Mong Hay said. “Cambodia feels more comfortable with China.”
However, as Cambodia tries to cultivate warmer relations with the international community, the country “cannot continue to be viewed as a satellite of a bigger country,” Kao Kim Hourn said.
“We have to keep an equal length between the three capitals— Beijing, Hanoi and Bangkok,” he said.
Wiedemann noted that Cambodia has also been moving closer to Vietnam, which could signify Cambodia seeking to balance its relations between two major foreign influences and powers.
“It’s a good strategy so Cambodia won’t be dependent on one country or exploited by one country,” he said.
Hor Namhong said the closer the relationship with China, the better.
“In the next millennium, who knows what kind of power China will be,” Hor Namhong said. “But China always helps us. We are a small country. How should we respond?”