A weekend meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Hun Sen concluded with millions in loans and aid agreed to and a clear message: neither nation is in a rush to deal with the prickly South China Sea dispute.
At the Saturday one on one, which included a vow to double bilateral trade by 2017, the Chinese president told Hun Sen that, while his nation favoured a declaration of conduct for the disputed sea, moving “too fast” would only serve to inflame regional tensions, Sry Thamrong, a spokesman for the premier, said.
Both countries agreed that the South China Sea dispute, which involves four ASEAN member states and won’t officially be a part of the summit’s agenda, should not be “internationalised”, Sry Thamrong said.
“[If it is raised], we would talk about the implementation of a DOC [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea]. In principle, we want to keep resolving the issue within the framework of ASEAN,” he said, adding that Cambodia “cannot prohibit” a country from talking about the dispute at the summit.
During the meeting, China pledged almost US$40 million in grants and more than $30 million in loans to Cambodia, while Hun Sen asked Hu Jintao for an annual loan of between $300 million and $500 million for infrastructure, irrigation and electricity, Sry Thamrong said.
Other issues focused on by the “all-round cooperation partners” included trade, security, irrigation and tourism, Sry Thamrong said.
Another significant area of cooperation is China’s pledge of support for Cambodia’s candidacy as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2013-2014.
The two leaders also agreed to target a doubling in bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2017, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said he was concerned about the number of loans Cambodia was taking from China and how close the two countries were becoming.
“It’s a move away from the neutrality that Cambodia is supposed to support as a country,” he said. “By giving so many loans to [us], China is able to control Cambodia’s policy.”
The loans had not been benefiting the majority of Cambodians, Son Chhay said.
“Cambodia has to move away from China and its influence over the country – the government has to take more caution and more serious thought before taking any more loans from China.”
Son Chhay also questioned Cambodia’s decision to side with China on the South China Sea dispute.
“You cannot ignore the requests made by the ASEAN states. Cambodia has to play the role as a representative of ASEAN, not a representative of China. ASEAN [members] want to deal with China in a collective way, not an individual way.
Son Chhay said it benefited China and disadvantaged other ASEAN states to try to settle the sea dispute one on one.
“China is powerful and is able to use its position to dominate any bilateral discussions with any individual members.
“The way of solving this [dispute] should be done correctly . . . through ASEAN and China.
“If it continues to kneel to China, Cambodia will no longer represent ASEAN in general.”
The opposition party lawmaker said he had written to the Chinese president asking him to abandon “controversial environmental projects” funded by the Chinese government such as the “environmentally disastrous” hydro dam project in Koh Kong province.
'No strings attached'
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, also questioned the value of China’s support for Cambodia.
“Sadly, China’s unstinting support and ‘no strings attached’ assistance continues to undermine international efforts to press PM Hun Sen and his government to respect the international human rights standards and contributes to poor economic governance by countenancing crony projects and big land concessions to well-connected Chinese companies,” he said.
Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Ek Tha could not be reached for comment.
In total, Hun Sen and Hu Jintao signed 10 co-operation agreements, including deals to widen national roads 6 and 44, build an irrigation project in Battambang province, construct Koh Tom Bridge in Kandal province and improve the special economic zone in Preah Sihanouk province.
China has also pledged support for agricultural initiatives as Cambodia pushes to export a million tons of rice this year.
Hu Jintao also met with King Norodom Sihamoni, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Heng Samring during his visit.