Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Thursday that Cambodians in China, a country in the thick of the novel coronavirus outbreak, will not be evacuated by the government.
Speaking at a press conference at the Peace Palace on Thursday, Hun Sen said taking Cambodian students and diplomats out of China at this critical moment would be a slight to the country. The prime minister described the decision as “soft diplomacy”.
“We decided not to evacuate Cambodian students. Evacuating them would probably bring an end to opportunities for Cambodians to study there. China would stop offering scholarships.
“We are keeping [Cambodian students] there to share [Chinese people’s] happiness and pain and to help them solve this situation.
“We cannot be there when things are good but run away when trouble comes,” he said, noting that the Chinese government was taking good care of Cambodian students there.
The prime minister said evacuating students and diplomats was out of the question, as was cancelling flights from China (other than those from Wuhan city, which was a decision made by Chinese authorities).
Either action would affect ties with the world’s second-biggest economy, which, in turn, would hurt the Cambodian economy beyond repair. China takes notice of our behaviour, he said.
Hun Sen argued that China has a population of 1.4 billion, but only a few have died from the coronavirus infection since it first appeared last month. He praised the Chinese government’s response, which has included putting Wuhan, where the disease originated, in lockdown.
“Cancelling flights with China would not be an attack on China. It would be an attack on the Cambodian economy,” he said, adding that such a move would antagonise Chinese businessmen and tourists here.
“[Cancelling flights to China] would kill the hospitality and service industry in Cambodia. It would strain relations between the countries. I don’t care what other countries think – Cambodia does not behave this way,” he said.
Hun Sen said he has made similar calls in the past that turned out to be correct. When an earthquake destroyed a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, he decided not to evacuate Cambodian nationals despite the threat of radioactivity.
Japanese politicians at the time praised the Kingdom for its generosity, Hun Sen said.
Kin Phea, the director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Hun Sen’s decision was a lesson in soft diplomacy but said it risked alienating the public.
“In foreign relations, we must balance the interests of the nation and the outcome of our actions. I think striving for that balance is a wise decision. Cambodia must have a long-term vision of its relation with China,” he said.
Ministry of Tourism spokesman Top Sopheak said concerns over the virus have slowed down foreign arrivals, particularly from China.
“With the number of tourists declining, the Ministry of Tourism is looking for ways to help those whose livelihoods depend on the industry,” he said.
On Monday, the government reported Cambodia’s first and, so far, only case. Jia Jianhua, 60, tested positive when he checked into a hospital in Sihanoukville with flu-like symptoms.
He had landed in Sihanoukville aboard a flight on January 23 from Wuhan city.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, Department of Communicable Diseases director Ly Sovann said there were no new cases of the virus.