CHINA has granted some $131 million in aid to the Cambodian military. It comes as yet another sign that the Kingdom is strengthening strategic ties with its Asian neighbour to counter increasingly cold relations with the United States.
The aid was announced as part of a five-day visit by the Chinese Defence Minister, General Wei Fenghe, who landed on Saturday at the invitation of his Cambodian counterpart, Defence Minister Tea Banh.
Despite previous denials from Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government, Cambodian-US relations are trending downwards, mainly due to what is seen by the government as constant interference by the US and its Western allies in the Kingdom’s internal affairs.
On May 15, US Congressman Ted Yoho, the Republican representative for Florida and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018.
It aims to impose financial sanctions and travel bans on certain Cambodian officials, a threat shrugged off by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) officials.
But, as if to bear out this threat, the US sanctioned a high-ranking official, General Hing Bun Heang, for what the Treasury Department claimed was his role as a commander of a Cambodian unit (Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit) that engaged in a series of human rights abuses.
The sanctions included denying him a visa and freezing assets he allegedly owns in that country.
And on June 15, under the banner of the UN Human Rights Special Procedures, two UN officials issued a press release that echoed concerns by the international community over alleged human rights abuses, clamping down of freedom of expression, and the Supreme Court dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party last year.
Banh told reporters after meeting with Fenghe at the Council of Ministers on Sunday that the visit would focus mainly on strengthening military ties between the two allies and on maintaining peace in Cambodia, and agreements had been reached for the Kingdom to receive military aid.
“For the aid, he announced China would give 845 million yuan [$131 million],” Banh said.
Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a senior lecturer at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, told The Post: “It is significant that the Cambodian government has invited the Chinese Minister of Defence to sign a new defence cooperation agreement just one month before the elections.”
This, she said, reaffirmed Cambodia’s foreign policy redirection away from defence cooperation with the US to China, and indicates that Western recognition of July’s elections will matter little to the Cambodian government.
“This is a significant display of support particularly in the context of the recent US sanctions against Hing Bun Heang,” Norén-Nilsson said.
However, Naresuan University professor Paul Chambers said he believes the Chinese defence minister’s visit was planned months in advance, so it does not amount to a response to US sanctions.
Fenghe’s visit, he said, shows that Cambodia has certainly tilted toward China and that Beijing has solidified itself as Hun Sen’s geopolitical patron.
“This enhanced defence provisioning represents an indicator of the Cambodian People’s Party’s [CPP] increased reliance on and the Kingdom’s deeper tilt toward and dependence on China,” Chambers said.
Meanwhile, Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the CPP is no doubt seeking to prove to the Cambodian people that the government has influential friends overseas, like the Chinese defence minister.
“Everything now is about showing off the right image in advance of the election,” he said.
Earlier, Banh said the Cambodian military will communicate with its Chinese counterparts on further aid in the future, after looking into what the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces requires.
He also said Cambodia is preparing to receive a People’s Republic of China Navy ship, with sailors due to visit to exchange experiences.
On his Facebook page on Monday, General Chhum Socheat, a Defence Ministry spokesman, said the visit will focus mainly on strengthening military ties between the two countries.
He declined to comment on whether any specific deals or agreements for further military aid would be discussed.
Socheat said during the meeting between Banh and Fenghe on Sunday, both expressed their commitment to expanding ties.
“The granting of additional funding is sincere kindness from the Chinese side, and takes place during the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Cambodia and China [establishing] diplomatic relations,” he said.
Both sides have agreed to hold a joint military exhibition for five days from June 19-24 on Koh Pich, showcasing the achievements of the two countries’ cooperation.
“Besides providing funding for the military, during the meeting, Cambodia and China also agreed to hold the Golden Dragon military exercises in 2019,” Socheat said.
In March 2018, the joint Chinese-Cambodian Golden Dragon military exercises included conducting heavy live-fire drills in Kampong Speu province, with officials from both countries giving speeches about their growing relationship.
The Kingdom’s annoyance over “foreign interference” has long been noted. In April last year, a US Navy aid unit was told to leave Cambodia, in a sign the Southeast Asian country was loosening ties with Washington, and strengthening relations with Beijing.
In January the same year, the Cambodian government suspended joint military exercises with the US after having been held in eight consecutive years.