China’s pledges more military aid as Cambodia prepares for controversial election
Beijing has long-term strategy for investment in the country
China has vowed to grant more than US$100 million in military aid to Cambodia as it promised to boost ties with the Southeast Asian nation ahead of its election next month.
The pledges came during Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe’s visit to Cambodia, where the two sides also agreed to increase military cooperation, including future joint military exercises, as well as a Chinese naval visit next year. Wei’s visit began on Sunday and will come to an end on Wednesday.
Wei met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday in Phnom Penh, where Wei extended greetings from President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
During his visit, Cambodian officials asked China to provide tactical gear, and provide the equipment and machinery needed to construct a training ground for live-fire drills.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party is expected to win the elections to be held on July 29, after the country’s primary opposition party the Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved last year. As a consequence, the EU and the US withdrew their support for the elections. Instead, Russia will provide election monitors and China and Japan have supplied election ballot boxes and booths.
Hun Sen has accused the US of supporting the opposition party in an effort to overthrow his government.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said the show of military support by Beijing is not directly related to the election, but shows how much Cambodia relies on China as it becomes increasingly isolated from other states.
He said that as ties worsened with the EU, Australia and the US, “Cambodia has nowhere else to go”.
During Wei’s visit, the two sides agreed to hold the Golden Dragon joint military exercises again in 2019. Military partnerships with other countries have been put on hold. Cambodia postponed joint military exercises with the US in January and with Australia in March last year.
Zhang Jie, a Southeast Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China’s increases in aid before the election should be seen as a long-term effort to safeguard its investments.
“China also realises that if Cambodia has a serious corruption problem, it’s bad for the long-term strategy for investment in the country,” said Zhang. On the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Zhang said China recognised that corruption could “endanger the safety of investments. But this is not something that can be solved in the short-term.”
While Hun Sen is likely to win the election, the military visit is also meant to stave off the threat of instability in the country, and convince hardliners that he is still the right man for the job, said Jean Jonathan Bogais, adjunct professor at the University of Sydney and specialist in Southeast Asia. “There are divisions within Cambodia, within the ruling party and the military, who have vested interests in agriculture, business and other sectors of society. They need to be sure that the status quo will not change for them, and need reassurances,” he said. “If Hun Sen can show he has protection from China, this will be a determining factor regarding whether there will be instability to Hun Sen.”