Cambodia’s Hun Sen has an important election backer: China

PHNOM PENH, July 28: China announced a major infrastructure project in Cambodia midway through its election campaign and denounced proposed economic sanctions by the European Union on the Southeast Asian nation. China’s ambassador in Phnom Penh also attended a ruling party rally in the Cambodian capital, according to a media report. The flurry of moves during the three-week campaign shows China is leaving nothing to chance to ensure its most loyal ally in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s long-time ruler Hun Sen, comfortably wins Sunday’s poll, political analysts said. “This is a bold step for China,” said Chheang Vannarith, from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “In the past, China kept a very low profile when it came to elections and domestic politics in Cambodia. This time, China is being very assertive.” China has had a long and volatile relationship with its southern neighbour. After backing the Khmer Rouge, it fell out of favour when the murderous communist regime was deposed. Ties have become stronger in the past decade with the government of Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years. “China sees Cambodia as a strategic state, one that is very important to China,” said Chheang, adding Beijing had “learned the lesson” from the surprise election defeat of Malaysia’s long-ruling coalition in May. Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has suspended more than $20 billion of China-backed projects and been highly critical of some of its investment. Cambodia has supported China’s island-building and militarisation in the contested South China Sea, and shielded Beijing from criticism by ASEAN, Southeast Asia’s 10-member forum of nations. ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are in disputes with China over rival claims to the waters. For Cambodia, China is its closest economic and political ally. Chinese capital investment into Cambodia increased from $600 million in 2012 to $1.08 billion in 2016, according to Cambodian government figures. Over the five year period, Chinese investment averaged half of all foreign investment. China’s embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment. Asked if China supported the re-election of Hun Sen, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing on Friday that the election was an internal affair but China wanted the country to “develop stably”. “China supports the Cambodian people to choose a development path that suits their national condition, and supports and offers its best wishes for the election to proceed smoothly,” Geng said. Cambodia’s foreign minister, Prak Sokhonn, who recently described relations between the two countries as the “best ever”, declined a request for an interview, as did senior Cambodian foreign ministry officials. PARTY GUEST
When the formal election campaign kicked off, China’s ambassador, Xiong Bo, was a guest at a big ruling party rally addressed by Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, according to the Nikkei Asian Review. Midway through the campaign, China announced it would provide Cambodia with $259 million in concessional loans to fund a ring road in Phnom Penh. During two events held a few days later, Xiong hailed Cambodia’s “excellent” diplomacy and criticised proposed European Union sanctions on Cambodia’s important garment industry sector. (agencies)