Back in 1988, the prime minister of Cambodia denounced China, describing it as “the root of everything that is evil” in his country. Hun Sen, still the Cambodian leader, is singing a vastly different tune now, praising China as Phnom Penh’s “most trusted friend”.
That isn’t the only example of a big pendulum swing from decades ago for China’s relations with Southeast Asia. With some countries, ties were frosty at best; China supported insurgents in at least three countries (Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar).
Relations with Indonesia, the region’s most populous nation, went from warm when Sukarno was in power to frozen for 25 years after anti-communist General Suharto elbowed him out in the mid-1960s. Now, there’s a free-trade agreement linking China and all its neighbours to the south, and Beijing is the biggest trading partner of most of them. Until Covid-19 forced a halt, huge numbers of Chinese visitors poured into the region’s resorts and tourist hotspots.
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