CHINA has pledged to donate 257 brand-new military lorries to Cambodia, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Sunday, less than a month after US officials suspended a similar donation in retaliation for the government’s controversial deportation of 20 ethnic Uighurs to China in December.
Speaking to reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport after returning from a visit to Shanghai, Hor Namhong said China had pledged to provide 257 new military lorries as well as 50,000 military uniforms during a meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Hun Sen. The foreign minister said China made the offer on its own without a request from Cambodian officials.
“[Hun Sen] did not ask them, but they know our requirements, and [Hu Jintao] promised to provide further military assistance in the future,” Hor Namhong said.
Hun Sen praised China during the meeting, Hor Namhong said, highlighting the country’s investments in the Kingdom.
“China is the top country that is building bridges and infrastructure as well as hydroelectricity in Cambodia,” Hun Sen told Hu Jintao, according to Hor Namhong.
The foreign minister on Sunday did not reference the US cancellation of military trucks to Cambodia – a sanction that some observers praised as others called for harsher measures.
The suspension of the donation was a direct response to Phnom Penh’s deportation of 20 ethnic Uighurs to China last December. Rights groups bemoaned the deportation, saying the Uighurs would likely face ill-treatment in China.
“[Cambodia] failed to heed not only our call that they step up to their international obligations, but specific obligations they have as a country,” US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley said at the time.
“We said there would be consequences, and this is a step in that direction.”
Crowley had earlier declared that the US government was “deeply disturbed” by Cambodia’s decision to deport the Uighurs. Almost immediately following the deportation, a Chinese delegation signed US$1.2 billion worth of economic aid agreements with the Kingdom.
On Sunday, US embassy spokesman John Johnson said US officials had no comment on the issue. Qian Hai, spokesman for the Chinese embassy, declined to comment at length on the donation. When asked if it was linked to the US cancellation, he said, “I don’t think so.”
Some observers, however, see the move as another example of a political power struggle in the region – one in which Cambodia appears willing to participate.
“I think Cambodia is playing a very dangerous game,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
“It’s pretty obvious the intention behind this. China is sending a message to the US that it’s planning on substituting its role in Southeast Asia.
“But I think for Cambodia, it’s a very dangerous game to be involved directly in this power struggle.”
Ou Virak, who last month praised the US decision to withhold its shipment as a sensible display of “tough love”, said Cambodia now risks becoming a “pawn” in a chess game between foreign interests.
“I think the smart thing is to stick with certain principles, particularly UN mechanisms for solutions, instead of showing that we’re taking sides,” he said.
Other observers had urged the US to opt for a much stronger rebuke of the Uighur deportation. Human Rights Watch called on the US to re-evaluate its military training support for Cambodia, arguing that military units with questionable rights records had previously made use of donated resources, including trucks.
“US training and military support for such units raises serious questions about the quality of vetting done by the State and Defence Departments of RCAF units and individuals,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, wrote in a February letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY