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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - China and Cambodia: what's at stake for new pals

China and Cambodia: what's at stake for new pals

WHEN Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrives in Cambodia on November 13 on the first

visit to Cambodia by a top Chinese leader in 30 years, diplomats from both the West

and Southeast Asia will be watching keenly for signs of China's intentions in Cambodia.

Concerns about Jiang attempting during his two day visit to push Cambodia to delay

or drop the Khmer Rouge Tribunal have topped the agenda so far, but there are other

issues to watch. In particular: China's commercial investment plans for Cambodia,

how gung-ho China really is on direct aid and loans, and some political issues that

could be affected by a closer long-term association with Cambodia.

"For Cambodia to develop relations with China is extremely important,"

said one diplomat whose country, like China, opposes an international Khmer Rouge

tribunal because it believes a trial should be a domestic affair.

"Cambodia is squeezed between Thailand and Vietnam. Who else could be a guarantor

of their security?" he said.

"In 1997 when the West turned its back on Cambodia, it was a window of opportunity

for China to come in."

Others said that from China's point of view, Cambodia's friendly relationships with

countries such as Vietnam and India where China has a rocky history are of intense


Jiang will be greeted on Monday morning by Cambodia's political and business elite

and 180,000 people, including 20,000 Chinese-Cambodian schoolchildren, waving flags

from Independence Monument to the King's palace.

In Phnom Penh he will meet King Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen, the President of

the National Assembly, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Senate Chief Chea Sim.

He is scheduled to go on Tuesday to Siem Reap.

He is also going to Laos and Brunei, on a trip that one Western diplomat described

as a "mopping up" of some ASEAN countries Jiang hasn't visited.

Ten diplomats and analysts interviewed by the Post often differed when asked what

the visit signifies for Cambodia. Some didn't even agree on whether they will greet

the Chinese leader at Pochentong Airport.

One said it would violate diplomatic protocol not to and would be "very rude".

Another said flatly that he wasn't going, "not just because of Jiang Zemin,

but we have decided we aren't going to the airport for every arriving dignitary."

Most agreed on a few things. In particular they said stopping a Khmer Rouge Tribunal

is of keen importance to China and will certainly be discussed by Jiang and Hun Sen.

Cambodian officials say the tribunal is not on the agenda. But as one Asian diplomat

put it: "It is difficult to imagine the tribunal will not be discussed, though

the details of the discussion I cannot imagine."

The diplomats from Asian countries interviewed by the Post tended - with one key

exception - to say that Cambodia, like Thailand, sees China as providing "a

balance" to the world's only superpower.

On the other hand the Western representatives tended to say that they see the meetings

as a natural progression as China tries to cozy up to more of its neighbors. That

view was also expressed by the Government of Cambodia.

"Cambodia is just a small country and we don't have strategic ideas about China,"

said Khieu Kanharith, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Information. "But

it is important for China to have a neutral government in Cambodia."

Everyone also agreed that Jiang Zemin won't arrive empty-handed.

China never showed much interest in contributing to Cambodia's welfare till after

1997, though its commercial and historical ties with Cambodia date back several decades.

China offered sanctuary to King Sihanouk back in 1970 and the king travels often

to Beijing. But in the last year and a half China has seriously stepped up financial

contributions to Cambodia in several areas.

China has given loans or grants to reconstruct the Senate and National Assembly,

projects which no other international donors have taken under their wings.

It has given military aid to rebuild a barracks and for armored vehicles and 2,000

AK-47 rifles with ammunition.

The levels of military aid are not considered "lethal" said one Western

diplomat. Another source said the levels of aid are about the same as what France

and Australia offered at times in past years. In addition, Cambodia's two Co-ministers

for Defense recently visited China and so has the chief and deputy chief of staff

of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

The warming-up began after the CPP seized power in July 1997: Cambodia asserted a

One China Policy and told Taiwan to close down its representative office in Phnom


One ASEAN diplomat said he believes that a good relationship with China is one thing

that politicians in Cambodia can all agree on. "There is no divergence. Funcinpec

likes China. The King likes China. CPP [seen as still allied to Vietnam] is becoming

more pragmatic about foreign politics," he said.

Probably the most significant offer from China was an announcement last year of a

$200 million loan in the form of a line of credit that could be tapped for future

projects. So far no deals utilizing the credit have been signed.

At least a few small economic announcements are expected next week. The deals may

take the form of contracts granted by Cambodia to Chinese businesses.

Chinese contractors, for example, have been bidding to rebuild several national roads.

Chinese engineers were recently in Poipet assessing the task of rebuilding the road

from Poipet to Sisophon.

Kanharith confirmed that deals are in the pipeline. "We're expecting a lot of

technical assistance, particularly in agriculture," he said.

He said China wants to help with varieties of rice, irrigation, fertilizers and agriculture

processing. All are areas that would help Cambodia feed its growing population.

In addition, Hun Sen said a few weeks ago he would ask Jiang to help Cambodia rebuild

the road to Laos.

But one diplomat said he doesn't expect China to start spending money in Cambodia

the way Japan has. "It's contrary to their politics. They are a developing nation

themselves," he said. "When did China ever provide anything but minor assistance

to anyone?"

Another diplomat, however, called China's assistance to Cambodia "quite demonstrable".

"What China hopes to get out of it is difficult to say. Perhaps just a general

increase of influence in the region."

For many people the chief concern is the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and whether Cambodia

can be influenced by China's strong opposition.

China has made it clear that it opposes international participation in the KR tribunal

because it considers the issue a domestic affair that should be handled within Cambodia

without United Nations interference.

Some people believe that China, which supported Pol Pot till 1991, stands to be embarrassed

by such a trial.

According to genocide researcher Craig Etcheson, China opposes the trial because:

"They consider it a bad precedent, they still admire the Khmer Rouge, they fear

exposure of their collusion in the Cambodian genocide and they fear the potential

consequences of their own genocidal policies in Tibet."

"Certainly President Zemin will not arrive with empty hands. But this additional

largesse comes with a string attached. China is determined to kill the possibility

that the authors of Cambodian genocide will be brought to justice," he said.

But most said they don't envision a heavy-handed scenario developing.

"I don't see them reading the riot act," said one ASEAN diplomat. "They

already know what China thinks. The Chinese can be very subtle. They know there is

this trend towards accountability in human rights abuses and they will pressure Hun

Sen for sure. But they've been pressuring him all the while."

He said Cambodia is chiefly concerned with what its own politicians think. "Hun

Sen doesn't only have to think of China or the United States. He has to think about

his own party, and within the CPP itself there may not be a clear idea how the trial

should be approached."

As another Asian diplomat put it: "They can delay this trial so that it becomes

an optical illusion. You think it's there but it's not really visible."

However one Western diplomat said it could reach a point where Cambodia has to choose

its alliances. "You can make China happy or you can make the West happy. Cambodia

has to weigh the two," he said.

It is of interest to China that Cambodia enjoys very friendly relations with two

of China's historic enemies: Vietnam and India.

One said China might like to sway Cambodia's voting power in ASEAN. "If China

got into a dogfight with Vietnam over the South China Sea, it could tip the voting

balance in ASEAN. I see it as having influence specifically in the South China Sea,"

said one Western diplomat.

Many people said that if China is willing to help Cambodia, there is no downside.

One official from a country that contributes heavily to Cambodia hinted that donors

wouldn't mind a bit if China wants to add to the international donor pot. It totaled

$545 million this year, with Japan the leading donor.

"Cambodia is desperate for aid from whoever will give it," the diplomat

said. "Cambodia doesn't have a China policy or a US strategy. It has a reactive


But one of the Asians said it is important to remember that China "thinks very

long term; at this point their strategy isn't clear but it may become so in the future".



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