Prime Minister Hun Sen has dismissed concerns that Cambodia is becoming a Chinese vassal state after criticism over the country’s pivot to Beijing amid souring relations with the west over human rights and democratic decline.
Speaking at the opening of a $50 million China-funded hospital in Tbong Khmum province late last month, Hun Sen said China had no intention of trying to control countries in the region.
“I want to make it clear ... I will not permit Chinese control and I know clearly about Chinese policy, meaning they don’t want to control anybody,” he said.
He added that Cambodia would continue to support the One China policy by acknowledging Taiwan as part of China.
Hun Sen has repeatedly said that Cambodia is an independent and neutral country and has accused the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party of working with the United States to unseat Hun Sen.
But after his Cambodian People’s Party jailed the CNRP president, Kem Sokha, and banned the CNRP ahead of elections held in July last year, relations with the United States and European powers have rapidly deteriorated. Meanwhile, China has stepped in to fill the gap, becoming by far the most important financial and political backer of Hun Sen’s government.
The US and EU have imposed limited sanctions on Phnom Penh and are considering removing Cambodia from preferential trading arrangements, a move that could have a significant impact on Cambodia’s economic competitiveness.
China recently pledged $600 million in grants and loans to Cambodia and increased its rice import quota to 400,000 tons. Observers say that in return for Chinese support Cambodia has backed its claims to the South China Sea, though Cambodia insists it remains neutral in the dispute.
Meas Ny, a political commentator, questioned how independent Cambodia could remain in the face of vast inflows of the Chinese capital.
He claimed Cambodia would “become a victim of power races between superpowers” as in previous decades.
China has concentrated on providing finance for the development of infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has absorbed projects from western-aligned financial institutions such as the World Bank.