Throngs of cheering school children greeted Chinese President Xi Jinping upon his arrival in the capital yesterday, with balaclava-clad soldiers enforcing order and whole sections of the city shut down as he paid visits to the King and the prime minister.
On his first trip since becoming China’s top leader in March 2013 – he visited as vice president in 2009 – Xi also oversaw the signing of 31 agreements, including $238 million in soft loans, $89 million in debt forgiveness and $15 million in military aid.
Arriving at Phnom Penh International Airport at about midday, Xi checked in at the Intercontinental Hotel on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard before meeting with King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath at the Royal Palace.
Police, military police and the elite Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit – who clutched bagged rifles – lined the street corners, while stretches of major arterial roads such as Norodom Boulevard were closed for hours at a time as Xi moved.
At about 5:30pm, the president, who has become one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s most important allies amid increasing concerns from the West about political repression, arrived at the premier’s office building on Russian Boulevard to meet him.
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The pair held discussions behind closed doors until 8pm, before departing to dine at the palace. Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for the prime minister, told reporters that relations between Cambodia and China had been growing ever stronger.
“President Xi Jinping said that eating Cambodian rice is very tasty, and encouraged exports of Cambodian rice to China,” he said. “This is a historical visit, and the two parties discussed boosting cooperation as the closest of friends and comprehensive strategic partners.”
The Chinese president also agreed to increase the quota of Cambodian rice allowed into China from 100,000 tonnes a year to 200,000, Sophalleth added.
Observers have warned that Cambodia has over the past years risked becoming a client state of China, with the government having repeatedly pleased the Chinese by blocking ASEAN from issuing stern statements on Beijing’s aggressive South China Sea claims.
Hun Sen and other officials have repeatedly denied that such efforts have been influenced by infusions of cash from China, even as the world power in late July pledged some $600 million in aid to the government only a few days after another ASEAN statement was nixed.
Yesterday’s meeting was also not short of attractive support from China, with Xi and Hun Sen overseeing the signing of a long list of deals that included the wiping out of debt worth 600 million yuan, or about $89.1 million, according to Sophalleth.
He also said China had pledged military aid of 100 million yuan. A document listing the agreements said Finance Minister Aun Porn Moniroth and Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng had signed off on a loan for 1.2 billion yuan that it classified as “unconditional financing”.
Among the 30 other agreements it noted was another loan for 400 million yuan, and a deal to cooperate to stop human trafficking, with complaints common of Cambodian women being sold as brides in China and later mistreated.
The document also said Interior Ministry Secretary of State Em Sam An and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had signed a deal for information sharing on internal security issues, and that Royal Group CEO Kith Meng had signed an agreement with Sinosteel for a 450 MV coal power plant in Sihanoukville.
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Xi’s visit comes after years of increasingly close relations with the CPP that have contrasted sharply with its relationship with Hun Sen in the 1980s, when China funded the Khmer Rouge and other resistance forces fighting to oust the premier’s regime.
The CPP’s new relationship with China has led to some concerns that pressures on it to allow free elections in 2017 and 2018 could be defused, with Hun Sen often contrasting China’s approach to aid with stern warnings about rights from Western nations.
Yet the Cambodia National Rescue Party, for its part, released a statement signed jointly by opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha welcoming the arrival of Xi, and reminding him of China’s support for the 1980s resistance to Hun Sen regime, where both have their roots.
“In the name of the leaders and members of the CNRP, and ourselves as the president and vice president of the CNRP, we wish to express congratulations and a warm welcome with the highest honours for the visit to Cambodia by the Chinese president,” it said.
“We as the leaders of the CNRP, a party that has . . . its origin in the Funcinpec movement (led by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk) and the KPNLF (led by Samdech Son Sann) cannot forget the deep assistance of every type from our Chinese friends to the recent struggle to liberate the country from foreign invaders.”
It also thanked China for helping to promote the October 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, which ended Cambodia’s civil war and led Hun Sen’s Vietnamese-backed government to allow a return to democracy through the UN-organised 1993 elections.