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Chinese warships visit Cambodia to ‘strengthen cooperation’ as western influence wanes

Chinese sailors man the rails of the Luhu Class Destroyer HARIBING (DDG 112) with Naval Air Station North Island in the background on March 3, 1997. (U.S. National Archives / Released)
January 20, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Three Chinese warships arrived in southern Cambodia’s coastal city of Sihanoukville Wednesday on a visit the two authoritarian governments said will promote stronger bilateral ties, a warming that comes as Western influence wanes in the Southeast Asian nation following an election last year seen as unfree and unfair.

The ships carrying some 700 crew members will stay in port for four days, during which Xu Haihan, a delegate from the Chinese navy, will meet with Defense Minister Tea Banh and other Cambodian military officials, Ministry of Defense spokesman Chhum Socheat said in a statement posted to his Facebook page.

“The Chinese warship visit will strengthen friendship and cooperation between the Cambodian and Chinese military,” the statement said, noting that Chinese naval vessels have visited Cambodia 17 times in recent years.

China and Cambodia have recently held joint military exercises and Beijing has pledged to help fund a modernization of the Southeast Asian nation’s military.

Meanwhile, China has been pouring investment into Cambodia in recent years, causing some Cambodians to question what type of influence Beijing might have over their government.

The arrival of the Chinese warships comes amid speculation that Beijing is building a 45,000 hectare (111,200-acre) naval base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, based on a Nov. 15 report by Hong Kong’s Asia Times online news portal, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen later dismissed the report, saying such a move would violate the constitution, while Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense called it “fake news” and part of a “foreign campaign to mislead the public and the international community with the intention of destroying the country’s independence and neutrality.”

If such a naval base were built on the Gulf of Thailand, it would allow China to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims much of, while rival Taiwan and ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own stakes in the waters.

Cambodia has increasingly backed China in disputes with the ASEAN nations over its actions in the sea.

Meanwhile, Western influence in Cambodia is on the decline amid criticism of Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) over rollbacks on democracy in the lead up to and aftermath of a July 29 election in which the CPP effectively ran uncontested and won all 125 seats after a ban of the opposition party.

The CPP overwhelmingly won the election following the Supreme Court’s November 2017 dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 of its senior officials for the party’s role in an alleged plot to topple the government.

The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.

‘Show of strength’

Political Analyst Kim Sok told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday that China’s visit is meant not only to “strengthen friendship and cooperation” between the two nations, but to demonstrate support of Hun Sen’s regime both financially and militarily.

“The Chinese warship is here as a show of strength against foreign sanctions,” he said, noting that Cambodia hasn’t shown any signs of backing down in the face of Western pressure.

But he warned that as Hun Sen faces a political deadlock and home and increasingly pushes the West away, “he has no choice but to rely on the Chinese.”

RFA was unable to reach CPP spokesman Phay Siphan for comment on Wednesday.

Hun Sen has repeatedly stressed that his country does not need foreign governments to recognize the legitimacy of Cambodia’s elections, saying acceptance by Cambodians is sufficient.

He has also said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s top foreign donor, and which is currently Cambodia’s largest international aid provider.

China, which typically offers aid to countries without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law, offered “sincere congratulations” to Hun Sen’s party for its showing in July’s polls.

Trade volume between Cambodia and China was valued at U.S. $5.8 billion in 2017, up 22 percent from U.S. $4.76 billion dollars a year earlier, while China is currently Cambodia’s largest investor, and has poured U.S. $12.6 billion into the Southeast Asian nation from 1994 to 2017.