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China, US influence a key theme

CHINA'S influence in Cambodia, and how the United States could counter it, was a key theme of a US congressional hearing held yesterday to discuss the Kingdom’s political environment.

The hearing, in which representatives proposed cutting US military aid to Cambodia, also saw debate over whether such a policy would damage the much-trumpeted US “pivot” to Asia.

“The US should stay engaged in terms of foreign aid. Whatever aid the US withdraws, the Chinese stand ready to fill the gap, with no human rights requirements attached” Daniel Mitchell, CEO of investment firm SRP International Group, told the hearing yesterday.

He argued that to counter Chinese influence, instead of being cut, aid should be reallocated to “tangible infrastructure projects” with “higher visibility to the average Cambodian”, to compete with Chinese-funded projects.

Speaking with the Post, Mitchell cited Cambodia’s National Road 4, built by the US decades ago but still colloquially known as the “American highway”, as an example.

Chinese investment in Cambodia has totalled $9.1 billion since 1994, including almost $1.2 billion in 2011, eight times more than the US, according to the Cambodia Investment Board.

Carl Thayer, a long-time Cambodia watcher and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said despite Chinese investment, Cambodia would always need access to US markets. “It can’t be one way or another. Cambodia has to have it both ways,” he said.

Although the US has traditionally been the major provider of military aid to Cambodia – funding tripled last year to $18.2 million – China is making inroads and threatening US dominance, Thayer added.

“It’s China that’s kinda playing catch-up [militarily],” he said, adding that military training was a key way to reach potential future Cambodian leaders.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, graduated from the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point in 1999.

“The US [would lose] a conduit of influence if [they started] polticising the military education programs,” Thayer said.

At the hearing yesterday, Democratic Party Representative Eni Faleomavaega called for a more “responsible” US policy towards Cambodia.

“When will we realise that Cambodia is important to US security interests … when we will we approach US-Cambodian relations a little more responsibly?” he asked.

Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy director John Sifton disagreed, however. “China will invest no matter whether the US [does]…I don’t think the Cambodian government really wants to be in the arms of the Chinese,” he told the hearing.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that Cambodia wanted the superpowers to work “harmoniously” as partners in the Kingdom.

“We wish that both superpowers help Cambodia to be independent, protect our sovereignty and [continue] economic growth… [be they] black, white or any colour, we learn from our partners.”

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