Oct 11 SCMP news — China’s foreign minister Wang Yi is expected to arrive in Cambodia today, in a trip that signals deepening ties between the neighbours but also comes at a time Phnom Penh is concerned about becoming a ground for Sino-American competition, analysts say.
In the first stop of his four-nation tour to Southeast Asia, Wang is expected to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, the Cambodian foreign affairs ministry said.
China is Cambodia’s biggest source of foreign direct investment, its top trading partner, and also is the holder of 46 per cent of the country’s US$7.9 billion foreign debt. Its growing presence in Cambodia has led the country to get caught in the crossfire of the US-China rivalry.
Last month, Washington placed sanctions against Union Development Group, a Chinese-owned investment firm that had leased about 20 per cent of Cambodia’s 440km coastline allegedly for a tourism project that the US said was possibly hosting Chinese military assets, while causing environmental harm and leading to the forced evictions of local residents.
In the same month, Cambodia tore down a US-funded facility at its main naval base of Ream in the Gulf of Thailand, while accepting Chinese sponsorship of a pier expansion, sand dredging to accept large warships, and the construction of a ship repair facility.
“We have concerns that the razing of the facility may be tied to plans for hosting People’s Republic of China military assets and personnel at Ream Naval Base,” Chad Roedemeier, a spokesperson of the US embassy in Phnom Penh, said in a statement this week.
“Such a military presence would negatively impact the US-Cambodia bilateral relationship and be disruptive and destabilising to the Indo-Pacific region.”
Cambodia has denied the allegations, citing its constitutional ban of the presence of foreign militaries.
The fact that Phnom Penh is Wang’s first stop “reflects Cambodia is China’s most trusted friend in Southeast Asia”, said Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute.
Wang’s visit was set to challenge the pressure Washington placed on Phnom Penh, he said, and came at a time when the US was distracted by its divisive presidential election campaign.
“Cambodia has also become a ground for Sino-American competition,” he said. “But Cambodia is closer to and trusts China more, while it keeps the door open to the United States. It is China’s chance to push further in Cambodia. The more the US places pressure, the more China pushes in.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Phnom Penh wanted both Beijing and Washington to treat it as a “younger sister” nation.
“The Chinese-Cambodian relations remain as good as always, on both economic and political sectors,” he said. “We are trying to avert becoming a geopolitical battlefield.”
During his visit, Wang Yi is expected to sign a Chinese-Cambodian free-trade agreement – the first such deal between Cambodia and a foreign state.
The agreement, which has sparked concerns as Cambodia last year experienced a trade deficit of some US$6 billion with China, comes months after it lost preferential access to the European Union’s market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
Brussels in August slapped tariffs on 20 per cent of Cambodia’s exports to the EU, citing democratic backsliding in the past few years as the Hun Sen government increasingly cracked down on dissenters.
Sun Kim, a lecturer of international relations at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia, said the US and China were stepping up their engagement with Cambodian leaders ahead of the country’s chairmanship of Asean in 2022.
Wang’s visit served to reassure Beijing’s closest Southeast Asian ally of its continued economic and political support, he said, as the US aggressively pursues a carrot-and-stick diplomacy in Cambodia, with whom it just celebrated 70 years of ties.“With this visit, [Wang Yi] wants to reaffirm that China remains influential and in a crucial position to support Cambodia, the Mekong region and Asean, in defiance of blockades and decoupling from the US on all fronts,” Sun Kim said.
Wang will also use the opportunity to pledge support for Cambodia’s post-coronavirus recovery and is likely to discuss providing the country with a Covid-19 vaccine, he added.In August, Chinese premier Li Keqiang vowed China would give the five Mekong countries priority access to its vaccine, and would set up a public health programme under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative to finance cooperation projects between the six nations.
After visiting Cambodia, Wang is due to travel to Malaysia, Laos and Thailand.