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New Book Examines China's Policy Toward Cambodia

China's foreign policy follows five principles in dealing with other countries, including Cambodia, with which it has had ties since the 1950s. But changes in China's policy have at times had direct political effects on Cambodia.

In a new book "China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence," author Sophie Richardson examines how China's foreign policy has influenced Cambodia.

“I think the Chinese government deals very conscientiously with all different kinds of countries and governments in pretty much the same way,” Richardson said a recent launch for her new title, in Washington. “It is not nicer to communist governments than it is to non-communist ones. It is not tougher on democracy than it is on dictatorship.”

Richardson, who is also advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said her research was based mostly on archives, including China's, and on hundreds of interviews with diplomats.

The five principles espoused by China are mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference, equality, mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence. These were created by the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party in 1940 and furthered by Mao Zedong.

When Cambodia gained independence from France in 1954, China's policy towards it was based on the principles rather than security, wealth or ideology, Richardson said.

Cambodia was at first seen as a part of Indochina, but that changed with a meeting between Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and then-prince Norodom Sihanouk. China began to recognize Cambodia and Cambodia was a help to China.

“If Sihanouk got nothing else, in terms of his relationship with the Chinese government, his very early support and very public support for the one-China policy and for the PRC regaining the Chinese seat at the UN made an enormous difference,” Richardson said. “To this day, you'll hear people in Beijing talk about that particular decision on Sihanouk's part.”

China was also concerned about its own security and growing US involvement in Southeast Asia, while newly independent Cambodia wanted major powers to see it as neutral. That helped tie the two together.

Delegations followed, including one led by then secretary of state for education Pung Peng Cheng in late 1950. His daughter, Pung Chhiv Kek, who went on to found the rights group Licadho, remembers the trip.

“We had a royal ballet troupe that included Princess Bopha Devy and Prince [Norodom] Chakrapong,” Pung Chhiv Kek told VOA Khmer. “There didn't seem to be a political or economic discussion. I think it was mainly to strengthen friendship.”

That friendship did grow, and China kept close to its five principles for the most part. But when it did stray, developments in China were to have a sweeping impact on Cambodia.

Under the Cultural Revolution, radical Marxists began spreading their ideology and support. They developed close ties with the Khmer Rouge. Chinese officials also supported Norodom Sihanouk's exiled government, following his overthrow in 1970.

Those relationships made current diplomatic ties hard at first.

Richardson writes that the ruling Cambodian People's Party looked to China as “the best source of aid and diplomatic resources” without conditions, but that “Beijing's history with Sihanouk, the [Khmer Rouge], and [Democratic Kampuchea] made forging this relationship difficult.”

Hun Sen at first was wary of China, Richardson writes, quoting a Chinese article. But Hun Sen was “also aware that China is big and strong, peaceful and cooperative, does not interfere, and can help Cambodia out of its poverty, so the past must be forgotten to win China's support.”

In the end, mistrust on both sides was put aside.

“Beijing may have had its hesitation about Hun Sen, but the reverse was not true...One Chinese official was even willing to overlook the CPP's past connection to Hanoi in praising the stalwart CPP members who had not left the country in the 1980s.”

Today, China has become a major donor to Cambodia, and diplomatic ties are as strong as ever.