EXPERTS testifying before a US government panel on Thursday described China’s relationship with Cambodia as part of a broader effort to deepen its influence in mainland Southeast Asia, and cited the December deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers – which came two days before the two countries signed aid agreements worth US$1.2 billion – as proof that the effort was working.
Speaking before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Donald Weatherbee, a leading American scholar on international relations in Southeast Asia, said China’s “accelerating” economic penetration of Cambodia was “a prime example of ‘RMB diplomacy’”, a phrase that refers to the Chinese currency, the Renminbi.
“In China,” he said, “the government of Hun Sen has an enabler, not concerned with issues of human rights, corruption, environmental degradation, the rule of law and the other kinds of nontraditional and human security issues with which Cambodia’s US and other Western [Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum] partners are concerned.”
Referring to the December deportation, he said: “Although both countries deny any connection between the signing of the economic package and the extradition of the Uighurs, it is clear that Cambodia was not going to allow its obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention – to which it is a signatory – to put a shadow over the signing ceremony for the new agreements.”
The 12-member commission, established in 2000, submits an annual report to the US congress “on the national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between” the US and China, as well as providing “recommendations, where appropriate, to Congress for legislative and administrative action”.
Members are appointed by leaders in the US senate and house of representatives.
The hearing on Thursday, titled “China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for US Interests”, was its first of the year.
Catharin Dalpino of Georgetown University told the panel that it was increasingly possible to detect “an emerging Chinese sphere of influence” in mainland Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, and to a lesser extent in Thailand and Vietnam.
She said China’s ties with mainland Southeast Asia had strengthened as the US, particularly under President George W Bush, focused on the region’s maritime countries, a trend she attributed in part to American emphasis on counterterrorism.
She also said that China was “adept” at exploiting differences in US and Chinese policies with respect to human rights and the promotion of democracy, citing Cambodia as an example.
“In Cambodia, when the West criticised Prime Minister Hun Sen for his part in the 1997 rupture of the government coalition, it put Beijing’s relations with the prime minister on a new, more positive footing,” she said, referring to the factional fighting between Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and Funcinpec.
Bronson Percival, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic Studies at the nonprofit research company CNA, said ties between Cambodia and China were in part linked to defence agreements, calling China the “main patron” for the militaries in Cambodia and Laos.
However, he added, “Despite speculation that China would like to eventually develop a naval base along Cambodia’s coast, these security relationships are limited to the usual array of visits, training, and the transfer of unsophisticated Chinese military equipment.” China has reportedly been interested in establishing naval bases in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Thailand to protect shipping supply routes.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong on Sunday took issue with some of the experts’ assertions, notably the attempt to link the Uighur deportation with the economic assistance agreements. He said, as he has previously, that the Uighurs were deported for no other reason than that they had entered the country illegally and without documentation.
“No, it is not related to each other,” Koy Kuong said. “The relationship between Cambodia and China is apart from the deportation of the Uighurs.
The Uighurs in Cambodia were illegal immigrants, and Cambodia implemented the Immigration Law against them because they were illegal.”
He also said that Cambodia’s relationship with China was no different from its relationships with other countries that give economic assistance.
“Cambodia is a sovereign state, and China is also a sovereign state, and no one has influence over the other,” he said. “We treat each other equally.”
The US and Chinese embassies both declined to comment on Sunday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ROBBIE COREY-BOULET