PHNOM PENH —
Cambodia’s late King Norodom Sihanouk was a monarch of many talents: Father of his country’s independence from France, shrewd politician, international statesman, as well as a prolific filmmaker and popular songwriter in his leisure time.
One of the late King’s better-known musical compositions pays homage to China - the country that gave him shelter following a coup that ousted him from power in 1970.
The lyrics of "Nostalgia of China" praised Beijing for defending Cambodia’s “equality, independence and freedom”.
“You are a great power, moving to the top with supremacy…. you know how to act humble and treat us without discrimination,” the song proclaims.
In 2012, four years ago on Saturday, Norodom Sihanouk passed away during one of his regular extended stays in Beijing.
He was 89.
FILE - Cambodian mourners cry and pray outside a crematorium as the late King Norodom Sihanouk is cremated in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013.
FILE - Police officers carry a casket carrying the body of Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk upon arrival from Beijing at Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. (AP)
On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the late King’s death, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Cambodia on a state visit.
The Chinese president arrived bearing promises of debt cancellation and new loans, and signed 31 agreements covering everything from finance, agriculture and trade to infrastructure development, health and military assistance.
First established by Norodom Sihanouk decades ago, Cambodia’s traditional friendship with China was elevated to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2010.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has now raised that relationship even further, to an unprecedented “peak”, the party’s spokesman Sok Eysan told VOA Khmer.
“Though we are not as big as a Chinese province, China respects us and offers us the sense of being of equal value as a country,” Sok Eysan said.
“It doesn’t play around with us like other countries.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands as they pose for a picture at the Prime Minister's office in Phnom Penh, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
At the end of Xi’s visit to Phnom Penh on Friday, the two countries issued a joint statement that praised the late King’s legacy and his close friendship with Chinese leaders of an earlier generation.
Both Beijing and Phnom Penh, the statement said, would deepen their ties further and their mutual stance on regional issues to “provide mutual benefits”.
Cambodia so closely shadows China’s position on international affairs that Phnom Penh has been accused of doing Beijing’s bidding within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), particularly on the South China Sea dispute.
Earlier this year, Phnom Penh fiercely opposed ASEAN releasing a statement in support of the International Court of Arbitration’s ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea.
China is Cambodia’s main aid donor, foreign investor, and major lender of loans.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that it was “not right” to claim that China’s largess and loans and bought Cambodia’s influence within ASEAN.
China has not tried to divide ASEAN through its alliance with Cambodia, said Sok Eysan, praising China’s foreign policies, which, he said, respected the “sovereignty” of others.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former personal secretary to Norodom Sihanouk, said China and Cambodia have ancient trade and diplomatic relations.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, former Secretary of late King Norodom Sihanouk.
However, it was the friendship between the late King and China’s then-Premier Zhou Enlai that led Phnom Penh and Beijing to establish formal diplomatic ties in the 1950s, Prince Thomico said.
Newly independent from France in 1953, Norodom Sihanouk steered Cambodia toward membership of the Non-Aligned Movement and sought the friendship of China as a means of protection within the region.
“From His Majesty’s perspectives, though China at that time was not very economically developed, it had a position as a regional power that we needed to stay connected to,” the prince said.
“Additionally, China was involved in the Indochina war in Vietnam. It was expected that connecting to China would prevent the fire of war from crossing over into our country,” he said.
By the mid-1970s, however, Cambodia was engulfed in the flames spreading from the conflict in neighboring Vietnam.
As the former secretary to Norodom Sihanouk, Prince Thomico said he has observed a fundamental difference between the current Cambodian government and the late King in their relationships with China.
Norodom Sihanouk moved towards China in the 1950s to protect Cambodia’s territorial integrity and maintain peace, he said.
The current government, the prince said, has placed more importance on the economic benefits of its friendship with China.