Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday lavished praise on China, attacking anyone who questioned the Kingdom’s relationship with its largest foreign investor, while also accusing the United States of setting up a purported espionage network through civil society organisations.
The premier’s comments, made at the groundbreaking ceremony of a new $57 million Chinese-funded bridge in Kampong Cham, follow criticism in recent weeks of the adverse effects of Chinese investment, especially in the coastal town of Sihanoukville. Late last month, the government set up an interministerial task force to address issues of criminality in the city stemming from Chinese investment, and last week the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh held a press conference pledging to help law enforcement efforts while pointing to the positive impacts of the flow of Chinese money.
On Friday, with Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo near at hand, Hun Sen lauded Cambodia’s biggest donor for its support, while juxtaposing its approach to aid with that of Western countries.
“We should talk with each other in a manner that [shows] we respect the independence and sovereignty of each other,” Hun Sen said, after reaffirming the government’s support for the One China principle, in which Taiwan is not recognised as a separate nation.
The premier went on to note the growth of Chinese tourism before calling on critics of the cosy relationship to back off.
“For sure, some people said that we are too close to China, but I want to ask back . . . Have you offered me anything apart from insulting, advising and threatening to impose sanctions on me?” he asked, an apparent reference to the US and European Union, which have imposed or proposed sanctions, respectively, since the Cambodia National Rescue Party was forcibly dissolved at the government’s behest in November.
From 2007 until 2013, Cambodia received about $189 million in funding from the EU, with nearly half a billion dollars pledged from 2014 to 2021. According to the State Department, the US provided more than $78.8 million in foreign assistance last year. In 2016 alone, however, China offered a whopping $732 million in bilateral aid.
“Not only Cambodia, the whole of Asean and other countries, now including Venezuela – [which is] located near the US – start to borrow Chinese money instead,” he said. “So other countries saying that Hun Sen leads the country too close to China, have you offered me anything besides abusing me? I want to be friends with you, and why is it very hard just to be your friend?”
The prime minister also repeated his challenge to Western countries like the US to cut off aid, claiming that “they do not dare” to do so because of their support for purported NGO “spies” – a claim in line with months of hardline rhetoric accusing allegedly foreign-backed politicians and organisations of trying to stage a so-called “colour revolution”. “We need NGOs, but some NGOs are the spies, and they serve the foreign agents destroying us,” he said.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment.
Former opposition lawmaker Long Botta yesterday contended that China is having a negative impact on the country. “China corrupts leaders of countries in order to extract natural resources from them, while the US helps Khmer people to get democracy and then stand up against Hun Sen,” he said.
Analyst Lao Mong Hay, meanwhile, noted that so long as Cambodia continues to be a “trusted friend”, Beijing will gladly continue to offer support. “As to what ‘trusted friend’ means, [that] would be well up to the powerful Chinese . . . The weak Cambodians would have little choice but to oblige.”
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon