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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Watching Beijing playing its cards

Watching Beijing playing its cards

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

it.

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

Penh -

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

Penh.

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

Rouge zones.

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

Taiwan.

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

the province.

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.

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