At every turn, Cambodia is shifting toward China for aid as it rebuffs the US, which Prime Minister Hun Sen says is behind a plot to overthrow his regime, using opposition leader Kem Sokha as a puppet.
Since the end of World War II, China has worked relentlessly to capture Cambodia as an ally, out of fear for the US’ growing influence in Indochina.
Mr Hun Sen has been inching closer to China ever since ousting co-premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh in 1997, when he secured power for the ruling CPP and his position as Prime Minister.
In November 2010, China forgave more than $4 million of debt that the Khmer Rouge government borrowed from China.
The dropping of the debt came shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cambodia and was asked to consider cancelling more than $400 million of debt to the US.
The move into China’s welcoming arms has picked up pace recently as relations with the US sour, with the two governments trading diplomatic barbs since the jailing of Mr Sokha on treason charges.
On September 14, after Mr Hun Sen returned from the 14th China-Asean Expo in Guangxi province, Cambodia and China agreed to set up a think-tank charged with studying and preventing colour revolutions.
On September 25, Cai Xiaoming, vice chairman of the Jiangxi provincial political consulting assembly, held a meeting with Lieutenant General Mao Sophan, commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ brigade 70, and an agreement was reached for Chinese officials to provide Chinese language lessons to the troops at their Phnom Penh base.
Chheang Vannarith of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies said Cambodia’s foreign policy remains flexible even though it is leaning toward China.
“Cambodia does not blindly support all of China’s positions or initiatives,” he said. “It only supports China’s policies and behaviours that are not threats to Cambodia’s core national interests, such as national sovereignty and territorial integrity, peace and stability, and economic development.”
Mr Vannarith added that China’s growing economic footprint in Cambodia compels it to be undertaken with good public sentiment for Chinese investment and business practices to be socially and environmentally accountable.
“To sustain and strengthen its long-term role and image, China needs to win the hearts of the people,” he said.
Mr Vannarith added that China’s ambition to take Cambodia under its wing is likely linked to power plays in the South China Sea.
“Without dominating the South China Sea, China is unable to project its regional and global power,” he said.
“It needs blue water naval capability and strategic space to accommodate its growing economic and military power.”
By adding Cambodia as an ally, Mr Vannarith said China secures an Asean nation that won’t dispute its moves in the South China Sea.
Currently, China has more money invested in Cambodia than any other country. According to the Council for Development of Cambodia, China’s investments were valued at $16.2 billion as of August.
Of 23 companies investing in the mining industry, including for iron, ore and gold, 10 are from China.
“Cambodia stands to benefit from China in strengthening its regime legitimacy and authority through economic performance,” said Mr Vannarith.
Hong Vanak, a China-Cambodia relations researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Cambodia will not develop without China’s help.
“I think China is smart, because when Cambodia needs help, they come to help,” he said.
“But normally, the giant, powerful country divides areas for better management.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said growing relations between the two countries are of no concern as long as it does not affect Cambodia’s standing with other nations.
“Western values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law of a free society, which are enshrined in the country’s constitution, are now more entrenched in Cambodia.”
China is the largest foreign investor in the energy sector in Cambodia, with accumulated capital of more than $7.5 billion in hydropower plants and about $4 billion in coal power plants.