Chinese leaders lauded former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk as a "great friend of the Chinese people" as they expressed sadness over his death in Beijing yesterday.
Vice President Xi Jinping visited Sihanouk's widow, former queen Monineath, in the capital to give his "deep condolences and sincere sympathy" to the Cambodian people.
"I was shocked and grief-stricken to learn His Majesty King Sihanouk died of an illness in Beijing early this morning," Xi said. "King Sihanouk is an old friend of the Chinese people, and has established deep friendship with Chinese leaders across generations."
President Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin , both offered their condolences, while Premier Wen Jiabao called on Sihanouk's widow.
The current Cambodian king, Norodom Sihamoni, and Prime Minister Hun Sen arrived in Beijing to bring home Sihanouk's body. The former king had been receiving medical treatment in Beijing since being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994.
His body will go on display in Phnom Penh for three months before a lavish state funeral.
Sihanouk had enjoyed close relationships with revolutionary leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai . The former leader, who died aged 89, had a luxurious residence in Beijing, which had served as the French embassy in the early 1900s.
Known for his artistic flair, Sihanouk had written songs praising China, one of them declaring "Long Live Chinese people, and Long Live chairman Mao".
"I always consider China my second home," he said in 1971.
"I firmly believe China will support the patriotic move of Cambodian people, and particularly Sihanouk," the former king said in a CCTV interview in 2004.
Sihanouk met Zhou at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, where leaders from Asian and African nations discussed the role of the third world in the cold war, economic development and decolonisation.
He then visited China twice between 1956 and 1958, and was received by Mao. In August, 1958, the two countries established formal diplomatic ties, which was followed by the signing of a treaty in December 1960.
Cambodia, however, was facing growing unrest and, in 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown by Prince Sirik Matak and General Lon Nol, who was backed by the United States. Sihanouk went to Beijing to solicit support.
Five years later Sihanouk learned the regime of Lon Nol had been ousted by the Khmer Rouge, for which he had previously expressed support. The Khmer Rouge let Sihanouk return, but it later put him under house arrest and ordered his execution. He went into exile again in Beijing in 1979 as Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer Rouge.
Sihanouk regained the throne in 1993, in a Cambodia scarred by civil war. He abdicated in 2004.
Professor Zhang Mingliang , a Southeast Asia affairs expert at Jinan University, said China had backed Sihanouk as other Southeast Asian nations had been sceptical of communist regimes.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse