HUN SEN this week wrapped up historic visits to two controversial destinations -
South Korea and China - in a bout of maneuvering on the Asian diplomatic stage.
Both trips were Cambodian People's Party (CPP) affairs. Only one Funcinpec representative
- Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor - was included in the delegation to South Korea,
and none went to China.
Neither visit likely pleased King Norodom Sihanouk, a staunch ally of China and also
the architect of Cambodia's former policy not to recognize South Korea.
Most significant was the Second Prime Minister's trip to China, days after the King
left Beijing for his long-awaited return to Cambodia.
Sources said Hun Sen had requested the visit, which led China to extend an official
invitation. China had informed the King, before his departure, of Hun Sen's request.
China has historically favored Funcinpec, and especially the King, in its Cambodian
relations. As historic sponsor of the Khmer Rouge and foe of Vietnam, China is likely
to share mutual distrust with Hun Sen, who was first brought to power by Vietnam.
Diplomats and political watchers suggested Hun Sen was attempting to bury the past
with China, while strengthening broader Asian recognition of him as a key force in
Hun Sen's diplomatic tour began with the foreign donors' Consultative Group meeting
in Tokyo, which he attended with his co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
From there, he went on to South Korea, warmly welcomed as the first senior Cambodian
official to visit since 1975.
Hun Sen was instigator of Cambodia's decision to resume diplomatic relations with
South Korea in May - contrary to the public policy of the King, who is close to North
At a luncheon, Hun Sen was enthusiastically toasted by South Korean president Kim
Young-sam, who expressed "deep gratitude" for his efforts to improve relations
between the countries.
Describing the visit as "epochal", Kim Young-sam said the two countries,
after a Cold War hiatus, were now "marching together into the future."
Professing respect for Hun Sen's "outstanding leadership and general enthusiasm...in
pursuing the development of Cambodia", he made no mention of King Sihanouk or
Hun Sen told South Korean journalists that full diplomatic ties with Seoul were "a
matter of time". But for now, representative offices - of lower status than
embassies - would be established in each other's countries.
After his four-day visit, which included a visit to a car factory and South Korean
promises of money for Mekong River development projects, Hun Sen returned to Cambodia
before leaving the next day to China.
Before his departure, Hun Sen said he hoped his trip - his first to China since he
and Ranariddh visited after the formation of the Royal Government in 1993 - would
help end "the suspicion of the past."
His five-day trip, announced as a "working visit" by the Chinese foreign
ministry, included meetings with President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng.
Hun Sen witnessed the signing of pacts on trade and investment protection, described
by other government officials as standard agreements signed with other Asian countries.
Also signed was an accord between his CPP and the Communist Party of China. That
- and the fact that only CPP officials were in his delegation - led some Funcinpec
officials and independent observers to suggest a blurring of the lines between Hun
Sen's work as Second Prime Minister and as CPP vice-president.
"In theory, it should have been members of both CPP and Funcinpec. He still
went there as the Second Prime Minister of a coalition government," said one
Funcinpec officials discounted suggestions of a major swing in Beijing's position
toward Cambodia, pointing out that protocol required China to accept Hun Sen's request
But diplomats and Cambodian historians viewed the trip as extremely significant,
suggesting that China recognized that it had to deal with both sides of the Cambodian
government, particularly in the future.
"Hun Sen, like him or not, you have to deal with him...especially as the Chinese
believe, like Mao did, that power comes from the end of the barrel of a gun,"
said one academic.
Chinese aid and trade with Cambodia was almost certainly the main subject of discussion
between Hun Sen and Jiang Zemin and Li Peng. Other possible topics included Taiwan,
which China - having watched Hun Sen's push to recognize South Korean - would be
loathe to see recognized by Cambodia.
A Taiwanese trade office recently opened in Phnom Penh, to the ire of King Sihanouk,
who supports the "one China" policy of Beijing.
Some observers suggested other, even more thorny, issues - such as the Khmer Rouge
and Vietnam - were also likely to have been raised.
China was the main supporter of the Pol Pot regime and later of the anti-Vietnamese
resistance front, including the KR, which fought Hun Sen's regime. It says it has
cut its KR links and this year pledged training and $1 million to the Cambodian army.
"China still harbors suspicion of CPP because of the Vietnamese connection,"
said one Asian diplomat. "The test for them is whether Hun Sen is still so close
"They might ask him bluntly, and he might just as bluntly ask 'Are you still
helping the Khmer Rouge?'"