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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A tale of two eligible suitors vying to win over Cambodia

A tale of two eligible suitors vying to win over Cambodia

NOTHING is more flattering for a pretty girl than to be wooed by two suitors who shower her with attention.

If she is wise and careful, she can play them off against each other and continue to receive compliments and gifts from both.

Of course, choices must eventually be made, but that does not mean undying fealty must be sworn to one or other partner.

With skill, both relationships can continue – even if, after maturity, the damsel finds richer rewards in other alliances.

That is Cambodia’s envious situation today, as she is courted by China and the United States, whose pandering has recently intensified on many fronts.

Just last week, Beijing inked two new trade and economic memorandums of understanding with Phnom Penh.

The first will boost trade in electronics, technology and agricultural products, while the second relates to an “Economic Acceleration Platform” for a nationwide high-speed fibre optic network.

Not to be outdone, the Americans sent deputy assistant secretary for ASEAN, Joe Yun, to testify in congress about moves to relieve Cambodia’s US$445 million debt to the US dating from the Lon Nol era.

Calling the debt “an irritant”, Yun said that resolving it would speed up the already improving bilateral ties and would “enhance Cambodia’s own economic development by improving its creditworthiness.”

He urged Phnom Penh to start servicing the debt so the US could then consider ways to convert it into aid – in other words, to write it off.

Significantly, the headline for the state department’s web posting of Yun’s testimony read: “Cambodia’s Small Debt: When Will the US Forgive?”

Clearly, Washington’s mood tends towards forgiveness and a desire to move on before China completely gobbles up Cambodia’s attentions.

Yun reinforced that perception by praising Cambodia’s recent progress, and he highlighted how its economy has been the seventh-fastest growing in the world over the past decade.

As well, he noted the new anticorruption legislation and revision of the penal code, and rather ingenuously asserted that the “2008 elections were peaceful and allowed the Cambodian people to express their preferences in an open and fair manner.”

Against these positives, however, he pointed out another major negative aside from the debt problem and that was Cambodia’s return to China of 20 Uighur asylum seekers last December.

Never mind the hypocrisy of this complaint coming from the people who gave us Guantanamo, rendition and torture, the fact is it soured US-Cambodia ties and tilted the courtship back in Beijing’s favour.

And the Chinese ran with it, showering Phnom Penh with a $1.2 billion aid package two days after the hapless Uighurs were deported.

Then, as the Americans used their feet for target practice by firing off a public condemnation of the deportation and threatening economic retaliation, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement went into effect.

As a result, from the start of this year, China and Cambodia began to exponentially expand cooperation, not only in economic terms, but also political and military. In May, for instance, their defence ministers, agreed to boost military links via exchanges of resources and technology.

All this, thankfully, does not mean that America is sitting back and allowing China to “steal” Cambodia.

For starters, the US still maintains a stronghold over Cambodia’s trade and economy. It is by far Phnom Penh’s largest export partner (42.5 percent share), while China is not yet in the top five.

To consolidate that lead, Washington recently signalled its intention to increase trade by facilitating US access to loans for investment between the two countries.
And to further burnish its embrace, the US went so far as to return seven stolen sculptures from the Angkorian era.

These are all very nice things for the no longer obscure object of desire and there is no doubt the intense “wooing” by the US and China will continue. Cambodia should exploit it to the hilt.

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