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Cambodia’s Military Ties With China Strengthening

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) stretches to shake hands with China's President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 7, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Lee/POOL
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) stretches to shake hands with China's President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 7, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Lee/POOL

Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh made a five-day trip to China last week, meeting with high-ranking military officials and receiving pledges of assistance from the Chinese military.

In an interview last week, Tea Banh, a trusted member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration, told VOA Khmer the visit was successful in bringing military cooperation between the countries even closer. That relationship is closer than Cambodia’s with the US, he said.

Analysts say Cambodia is likely to look more and more to China for support, with tensions growing with its old patron, Vietnam, over border issues. Cambodia and China have enjoyed traditionally strong ties, through late King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s.

Those ties noticeably improved after 2012, when as host of an Asean summit, Cambodia sided with China over the contentious South China Sea issue. The following year, China provided Cambodia with a $195 million loan, which bought 12 Chinese Z-9 military helicopters. In May this year, China pledged military trucks, spare parts, equipment and unspecified chemicals.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has often touted the relationship. During the inauguration of a Chinese-funded road in Kampong Som province last month, he told a group of farmers that Cambodian-Chinese relations were at an all-time high, and that the two were moving toward a “comprehensive” partnership. China’s development fund for Cambodia for 2015 was $140 million, up from $100 million the year before, he said.

Tea Banh defended the bilateral relationship, saying Chinese aid comes with no strings, while China has never interfered in Cambodian affairs. He declined to disclose how much aid Cambodia would receive from the latest trip.

Yet analysts warn that China is getting more out of the deal than Cambodia. Chheang Vannnarith, a visiting professor at the University of Leeds, said China needs Cambodia as a partner in Southeast Asia, where competition is rising. Cambodia needs Chinese partnership, as Vietnam moves closer to the US.

“The region is full of complicated competition,” he said: China and Japan, China and the US. “China takes Cambodia in Indochina and the Mekong region to strengthen its sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific.”

In the end, Cambodia is playing a riskier game than China, Chheang Vannarith said. “Once we rely on China so much, we will lose what is called self-determination in foreign policy,” he said.

Paul Chambers, a professor at Chiang Mai University, said China, “a growing super power,” uses Cambodia for influence within Asean, in what he called a “growing cold war” between China and the US. China also hopes to split up Asean, he said.

“I believe that Hun Sen has shown himself in the past and present to be a very good balancer among allies,” he said. “Hun Sen will increasingly welcome Chinese defense sector assistance to Cambodia.”

Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, told VOA Khmer that the growing military cooperation between Cambodia and China will counter US influence in the region, while bolstering Cambodia’s military capabilities.

“We see America trying to develop closer ties with Vietnam, for example, with last week’s senior Vietnamese visit to Washington,” he said. “China’s willingness to develop stronger defense links with Cambodia is part of this process. However, I doubt that this will go so far as to fundamentally transform Cambodia’s defense posture or sector.”

Last week’s trip by Tea Banh to China comes amid an ongoing diplomatic row with Vietnam over alleged border encroachment. The Beijing visit could signal to Vietnam that “China may be willing to support Cambodia in a border dispute with Vietnam,” White said.