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Chinese Principles, But Also Personal Relationships

Although China maintains certain principles in its foreign policy, in the case of Cambodia it has also used inter-personal relationships.

Despite sweeping political changes in Cambodia over the past 50 years, the Chinese government has continued to focus its relationship on former king Norodom Sihanouk, according to author Sophie Richardson, who recently released a new book called “China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.”

While the Chinese government has cultivated a relationship with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party, the former king has never been far from the picture, Richardson writes.

Chinese leaders have often “referred to Sihanouk, their fellow traveler of four decades, as a positive model for the CPP,” she writes.

In meetings in 1998 and 1999 between Chinese leaders and Hun Sen, China wanted strengthened unity and cooperation under Norodom Sihanouk’s leadership and a coalition government, Richardson says.

“In the case of Cambodia it was not simply a relationship of a state to a state that had to be maintained in its continuity, but also very much of a person and people,” Brantly Womack, a political professor, said at the recent launch of Richardson’s book in Washington. “Prince Sihanouk and his continuity in Cambodian politics was an essential factor in the story that Sophie tells, and it's not just that China felt that Sihanouk was a reliable partner in a sense of being a client, it was that Sihanouk was a respected partner.”

Norodom Sihanouk was involved in Cambodian politics for more than half a century, honored, exiled, under house arrest and finally re-emergent as a political force, before he abdicated in 2004. Through it all, he maintained his relationship with China.

More broadly, Richardson concludes that China’s foreign policy principles here have been highly successful, even as “domestic policy choices…have helped China develop.”

China has now emerged as a major donor and investor in Cambodia. Hun Sen’s government has kept with the one-China policy espoused by Norodom Sihanouk, especially concerning Taiwan, which China considers a rogue province.

“We adhere to a one-China policy,” Hun Sen told a gathering of provincial governors in early August. “Taiwan is just a province of the People's Republic of China. This is our position.”

However, some scholars see geopolitics and China’s long-term interests at work with its Cambodia development policies.

“I think it's pretty obvious that [the Chinese] expect a certain amount of respect for those gifts, and they don't want to have some of their policies exposed or opposed,” historian David Chandler told VOA Khmer.

Such policies could include China’s expansion into Southeast Asia or its support of the Khmer Rouge, he said. “They don’t want that brought out into the open.”

Scholar John Ciaorciary sees Cambodia’s position on the other side of Vietnam as attractive to Beijing, which has not always had a healthy relationship with Hanoi.

China has also exhibited a strategy of supporting whomever is in power, including Pol Pot, he said.

“I don't think it's because of any ideological affinity or inter-personal or cultural affinity,” he told VOA Khmer. “I think primarily because Cambodia provides a useful strategic and increasingly economic partner for China.”

Whatever its reasons, China is now playing a significant role in the region, both economically and politically.

Kurt Campbell, the US State Department’s of top official for East Asia, said the US welcomes China’s role as a large neighbor to many countries in Southeast Asia.

And while it’s “natural” for Cambodia to want a good relationship for China, he said, “we also believe that most Southeast Asian countries also want a good relationship with the United States. And we want to facilitate that.”