It pays to be friends with Beijing, but why is big China wooing small Cambodia?

Visit by Xi Jinping highlights his bid to use impoverished neighbour as an example of what Beijing can offer its potential allies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2016, 11:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2016, 11:22pm

In the early 1970s, Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai played host to exiled Cambodian prince Norodom ­Sihanouk and made him an honoured state guest to demonstrate China’s support for small countries fighting imperialism.

China’s vision of the world has changed much since, but its strategy of using Cambodia to showcase Beijing’s big picture has not.

When President Xi Jinping landed in Phnom Penh on Thursday, he had a clear message to deliver not only to impoverished Cambodia but also other Asian countries: stay close to China to gain from its growing wealth and regional power.

Why Cambodia is pinning its hopes on Chinese president’s visit

China is putting its hopes on the absolute support of Cambodia, its strongest ally in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to build closer relations with the bloc. It hopes to counterbalance Washington’s influence in the region, and show potential allies what Beijing can offer in terms of trade growth, infrastructure development and financial aid.

“China can use projects in Cambodia as examples to get other countries on board,” Victor Gao, a businessman who worked as a translator for Chinese leaders in the 1980s, said at a forum in Beijing earlier this week.

If Cambodia could gain from China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Xi’s brainchildto push Chinese investments abroad along ancient trade routes, it could help the scheme gain support from other poor countries that aspired to develop, Gao said.

Last year, China invested more money in Cambodia, a country with 16 million people and a per capita gross domestic product of US$1,200, than all other countries combined. In all, China accounts for 20 per cent of capital spending in Cambodia.

“Cambodia is China’s iron buddy,” Peking University international relations professor Zhai Kun said. “It’s China best friend, and China clearly appreciates it.”

Despite the closeness, the two countries had a complex relationship in the past due to China’s strong backing for the former Khmer Rouge regime during the Cambodian civil war in the 1970s, which claimed the lives of some 1.7 million Cambodians.

But the firm handshakes between Xi and Sihanouk’s son King Norodom Sihamoni during the Chinese president’s trip, which ended on Friday, were a sign of comradeship and mutual trust. They marked a sharp contrast to the ties between the United States and its longstanding ally in Asia, the Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly called US President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” and told him to “go to hell”.

But as it flexes its economic, political and even military muscles in Asia, China is causing uneasiness and sometimes strong responses from Washington and its allies.

And so China is in need of friends. Cambodia has proved to be one more than once, including in 2012, when it stopped Asean from publicly condemning China’s conduct in the South China Sea, even at the cost of irritating other Southeast Asian countries.

Meanwhile, as its population gets richer and older, China is treating Southeast Asia as a place to seek high investment returns.

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“In the coming two decades, Asean will be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, just as China was in the 1990s. It’s a vast investment chance that China won’t miss,” said Chu Yin, from the University of International Relations.

To be sure, while Beijing has won the hearts of the Cambodian royal family, Chinese investors need to do more to ensure that the benefits of Chinese investments are shared by the general public, and that these inflows will not cause environmental havoc.

However, Peking University professor Zha Daojiong said at the forum last week that it was a long-term process to bring small countries into China’s orbit.

“Other countries do not have an obligation to appreciate ‘One Belt, One Road’,” he said.