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Analysts: Cambodia’s New Government to Maintain Close Ties With China

FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet speaks during the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Jakarta on Sept. 4, 2023.
FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Manet speaks during the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Jakarta on Sept. 4, 2023.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet will seek to strengthen ties with China when he visits Beijing later this week, analysts said.

Hun Manet will make an official visit to China from Sept. 14 to 16, China's Foreign Ministry announced Monday.

The son of Hun Sen, who led the Southeast Asian nation for almost four decades, Hun Manet took office on Aug. 22.

"At the invitation of Premier Li Qiang of the State Council, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun will pay an official visit to China," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a statement.

Last week, Hun Manet, a 45-year-old West Point graduate, said Cambodia's new government will maintain an "unchanged stance" on Beijing's "One China" policy, and a "non-interference policy" toward China.

The One China policy views Taiwan as an inalienable part of China. Taiwan, a self-governing island, disputes Beijing's claim to its territory.

In Beijing, Hun Manet is expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and hold a meeting with Premier Li Qiang on bilateral and multilateral cooperation, Cambodia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

"As Cambodia and China are commemorating the 65th Anniversary of the Diplomatic Relations and the Year of Friendship, this forthcoming visit of Samdech Thipadei HUN Manet is poised to further consolidate the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation between the two nations," the statement said.

Hun Manet will also participate in the 20th ASEAN-China Expo Sept. 16-17 in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Mao said China hopes that the visit will "chart the course for the comprehensive strategic cooperation between the two countries in the next stage."

Maintaining close ties with Beijing amid increasing U.S.-China strategic competition is likely to top the agenda during the trip, according to analysts.

"Cambodia-China's alignment on certain foreign policy agendas is sure. When two countries have a strong political and diplomatic tie, they offer mutual supports on certain agendas," Chhay Lim, a visiting fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, wrote in an email to VOA Khmer on Tuesday.

It is clear, he added, that Cambodia supports Beijing's One China policy and regards its stance on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan as domestic issues.

"In return, China supports Cambodia's development, despite the West's criticism of [former prime minister] Hun Sen's regime on human rights violations, oppression on political activists, and so on and so forth," Chhay Lim said.

Cambodia is drawing closer to China and their relationship has been elevated to what Beijing calls the Diamond Hexagon cooperation framework.

Established in February, it focuses on six priority areas: political cooperation, production capacity and quality, agriculture, energy, security, and people-to-people exchanges, according to China's state media outlet, Xinhua.

Cambodia has long supported China, including at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in return for receiving significant investments, loans and grants from China to build infrastructure, according to analysts.

Cambodia decided not to join ASEAN's first joint military drills this month, proposed by Indonesia, current chair of the bloc, which aims to exercise in the contested South China Sea much of which China claims as its own.

"Cambodia doesn't want to participate [in the drills] because Cambodia doesn't want to have strife with China," Em Sovannara, a political science professor in Phnom Penh, told VOA Khmer on Wednesday.

As chair of ASEAN in 2012, Cambodia was criticized for blocking a joint communique on the South China Sea because Cambodia defended China's position on the disputed waters.

Last week, ASEAN — a bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations that operates on the principle of consensus and noninterference of sovereignty — remained divided over how to deal with China's aggressive behavior in the disputed waters.

Yulius Hermawan, a lecturer on international relations at Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, Indonesia, told VOA Khmer in an email it is worrying that ASEAN leaders failed to show a united response to China, which "may reflect a high degree of China's ability to steer ASEAN as a regional bloc."

Among ASEAN member states, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are official claimants against China.

They failed to bring the other six members — Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand — on board to address the South China Sea disputes in a joint statement at the bloc's annual summit ended last week.

Some speculate Cambodia could seek to engage with Western nations while keeping close ties with China.

Chhay Lim, a Cambodian scholar, said Hun Manet clearly understands the Western perspectives, saying the main question is not whether Cambodia will change its China strategy, but whether Phnom Penh can "formulate strategies to engage with Western nations or to cultivate more friendly relations with them" for potential economic benefits, given that the U.S. and the EU remain its largest export markets.

Additional reporting in Phnom Penh by Han Noy and Sim Chansamnang.