HAVE the Chinese offered to give asylum to Ieng Sary should the Khmer Rouge chief
prove unpalatable to the existing body politic? Has Hun Sen now been granted "Most
Favored Politician" status by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing? Or,
is China's interest in Cambodia simply a function of wanting to establish a broader,
mutually-beneficial economic relationship which will contribute to the Kingdom's
on-going reconstruction and long-term development?
These and other questions concerning Chinese intentions in Cambodia have been on
the minds of some Cambodia watchers in the last few months, and have only been heightened
with the recent split in the Khmer Rouge senior leadership in western Cambodia. However,
finding hard answers to a multitude of unknowns is more a matter of reading tea leaves
than anything close to an exact science.
The two events which have brought much speculation to the fore on the China question
are Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's July 18-23 visit to Beijing and an earlier April
22-24 visit to Phnom Penh by Chinese General Zhang Wan-Nian.
While the official line on Hun Sen's trip to China is that he requested the visit
and that the Royal Government paid for the plane to go there, government sources
and diplomats say that, in fact, it was the Chinese who extended the invitation during
Gen Zhang's April visit.
As well, sources say that the Chinese paid for the costs of the plane which was sent
here from Beijing to pick the co-prime minister up and bring him home - a sum estimated
at around $100,000.
If the latter is true, analysts say that it is a serious indication of China's interest
in courting the second prime minister, if not an outright endorsement of Hun Sen
as the "man in charge" of Cambodia.
Moreover, assuming that it was the Chinese who invited Hun Sen, and not a request
made by the co-prime minister, observers point to the importance of the man who delivered
Gen. Zhang Wan-Nian is chief of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff
Department and a member of both the party and state Central Military Committees.
As chief of the General Staff, Zhang directs the PLA's most important command post,
having direct control over all of the PLA's fighting forces. It was Zhang who directed
the recent military exercises off the coast of southern China in the Formosa Strait
which sent shivers through Taiwan and prompted the U.S. to dispatch two aircraft
carrier groups to the region. Earlier in his career he headed a division during the
1979 military campaign against Vietnam, and was promoted rapidly after the conflict.
The highlight of Zhang's visit to Cambodia in April was the signing of a $1 million
military aid package with the Royal Government to provide training and equipment
to RCAF. While the size of the aid package was not overly impressive, according to
one western military analyst "the size of the delegation was a good indication
of the general overall interest China has in Cambodia." Observers also note
that the size of the Defense Attaché's office at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom
pegged at 30, including spouses - is an indication that the Chinese military is
serious about developing a long-term relationship with the powers that be in Phnom
At the very least, Zhang's visit and the announcement of official military cooperation
should have signaled the death knell on any lingering doubts about whether the Chinese
were providing support to the outlawed Khmer Rouge.
Having been the KR's primary supplier of arms during the 80s and before, suspicions
within the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) about Chinese intentions are understandable.
While most observers agree that the Chinese ceased supporting the KR since the signing
of the Paris Peace Accords, including an unconfirmed refusal by China to grant permission
to Pol Pot to travel to Beijing for medical treatment in 1994, doubts have lingered,
especially when new Chinese weapons are found on captured KR guerrillas, although
these are generally believed to have come from hidden caches of weapons in Khmer
In a nutshell, it appears Zhang's visit was designed to show the Royal government
and the doubting Thomases within the CPP that the Chinese political and military
hierarchy were, at the very least, solidly in support of the coalition government.
While Hun Sen, on behalf of the CPP, and the Chinese Communist Party did not sign
any party-to-party agreements in Beijing, the issue was discussed. China watchers
say the Chinese are keen to do so, as they are also eager to strengthen party ties
with their Laotian and Vietnamese counterparts.
But in Cambodia, the Chinese had to make a choice. The decision to try and establish
links with the CPP has been made easier because of Funcinpec's active courtship of
Taiwan and Taiwanese business interests, which no doubt infuriates Beijing.
Taiwan - China's primary foreign policy concern - established a trade representative
office in Phnom Penh last year. Flush with capital, Taiwanese investors have been
pouring into Cambodia looking for productive business opportunities. Liaising primarily
with Funcinpec government officials, Taiwanese have invested in hotels, real estate,
timber operations and garment factories. On several occasions the Chinese are reported
to have protested strongly, albeit privately, about the RGC's expanding links with
According to one China watcher, the Chinese feel they have been betrayed by Funcinpec
- a party they supported for more than ten years when the Royalists were operating
with the resistance factions on the Thai border.
"For the Chinese, being ungrateful is immoral," said the scholar. "The
Chinese have made a cool calculation. They like the King, but they have to think
of their own interests. They waited to see what the coalition would do for three
years and now they have decided to back Hun Sen."
Was the subject of the Khmer Rouge discussed when Hun Sen visited China and were
the beginnings of a larger deal involving what to do with key Khmer Rouge leaders
sketched out? The official response is "No", but its not too unlikely a
scenario. Said one diplomat: "The prefect solution would be for Ieng Sary to
go to China."
Overall, a wide variety of diplomats and political analysts say that China's primary
interest in Cambodia is stability. Like Cambodia's ASEAN neighbors, China does not
want to see a reversion to political unrest and widespread civil war. With enough
problems of its own at home, China won't raise a finger on human rights issues in
the Kingdom either.
Politics aside, is there potential for a burgeoning Chinese-Cambodian economic relationship?
The answer so far seems a qualified "Yes".
Since the 1993 elections and the formation of a new government, Chinese entrepreneurs
from the mainland have been pouring into Cambodia. In 1994 and 1995, Chinese were
numerically the largest country by nationality for visitor arrivals at Pochentong
airport - totaling 22,886 for 1995 alone, which works out to about 62 per day.
Chinese-owned enterprises have sprung up in Phnom Penh in the last two years like
dandelions after a heavy rain: hotels, karaoke parlors, restaurants, import-export
firms and general traders alike. The Chinese Embassy says that there are about 100
Chinese government and private firms with operations in Phnom Penh.
"Cambodia is great," said one Chinese investor, "You can do anything
you want here." The man quit his job as a travel agent in a government owned
firm in Guilin because he felt that he would have no savings after working hard for
thirty years. He then spent two years in Vietnam, but left feeling frustrated with
all the red tape.
While most Chinese arrive on tourist visas, travel agents say that the mainlanders
are not coming to see Angkor Wat.
Speculation is rife that many Chinese are coming to Cambodia to buy passports so
they can travel on to third countries or buy land in the Kingdom. One airport security
expert in Bangkok says that he regularly sees mainland Chinese coming out of Cambodia
carrying Cambodian diplomatic passports. Said one government official when asked
what all these Chinese were doing in Cambodia: "Go ask the Ministry of Interior"
More than a few hotels in Phnom Penh are said to have as many as 20 Chinese living
in one room, getting by on the cheap while they figure out how to carve out some
kind of new life.
There are already signs that a murkier underside of the Chinese presence is developing
in the capital and stories have surfaced in the press whereby Chinese have been found
dead in their hotel rooms, bludgeoned to death over what is suspected to be some
shady business deal gone sour.
Chinese traders have been coming to Cambodia for centuries and many have settled
here permanently becoming Cambodian citizens in the process.
As well, Phnom Penh has always had a substantial Chinese business community as have
the Kingdom's other major cities. A survey conducted in the 1950's indicated that
seven percent of the country's population was of ethnic Chinese extraction, one of
the highest percentages in Southeast Asia.
The existing class of ethnic Chinese businessmen bodes well for the development of
stronger ties with "cousins" from the mainland. Language, customs, and
a shared ethnic heritage serve well the growth of new business ties.
For the time being the process seems to be proceeding relatively smoothly, although
there are the beginnings of grumblings from some Cambodian quarters about getting
"gobbled up" by their giant neighbor to the north.
Its easy to speculate that one of the reasons Gen Zhang was chosen to lead the April
military delegation to Phnom Penh was his own experience in and contacts with the
Chinese business sector.
As commander of the Guangzhou Military Region during the late 1980s, the general
couldn't help but witness the explosive economic growth in Guangdong, especially
as military units under his command were deeply immersed in business activities in
Alas, the Chinese Embassy was a bit reticent to discuss issues such as this. The
charge d'affaires said he didn't feel ready to take any questions. And when the subject
of Chinese business interests in Cambodia was broached with one of the embassy's
commercial officers, he politely begged off saying that he was too busy preparing
for a 20-member business delegation which arrived in Phnom Penh on Aug 20.