China reaffirms ties with Cambodia with new deals

Premier Li oversees signing of various agreements during Phnom Penh visit

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed close ties with Cambodia yesterday, overseeing the signing of deals that will deepen China's already large imprint on the South-east Asian nation.

During his official visit in Phnom Penh, both sides inked agreements for Chinese loans for electricity and roadworks in Cambodia. Another deal involved Chinese financing for a new airport.

China Communications Construction will build an expressway some 200km in length linking the capital Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, a coastal city that has attracted strong Chinese investment. Cambodia's Royal Group of Companies and China Great Wall Industry Corporation will also launch Cambodia's first satellite, said a Reuters report.

Mr Li also told Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen that China had another aid pledge of more than 1.2 billion yuan (S$246 million) for other projects, according to Mr Eang Sophalleth, an aide to Mr Hun Sen.

Meanwhile, both countries pledged to deepen cooperation in agriculture, and grow bilateral trade to US$6 billion (S$8 billion) in 2020. China is Cambodia's biggest source of aid, investment and imports.

In a joint communique issued after the visit, China "reiterated its respect for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia, and reaffirmed its support to the Cambodian people in selecting a development path which suits their national conditions". Both countries also agreed to try to align Cambodia's development strategy with China's Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure plan to tighten the links between Beijing and regional economies.

Within Asean, Cambodia has been known to support China's position by blocking mention of an international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea, a large part of which China claims. China, in turn, has voiced support for Phnom Penh amid criticism of Mr Hun Sen's crackdown on the political opposition.

Mr Li and Mr Hun Sen were co-chairs of the recent Lancang-Mekong Cooperation leaders summit, a China-backed platform to promote coordination among the six countries through which the key South-east Asian river flows.

Trust between the leaders of both countries runs deep, notes Dr Chheang Vannarith, a visiting fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. Last December, President Xi Jinping reportedly called Mr Hun Sen a good friend of the Chinese communist party and the Chinese people.

Cambodia, as a member country of groups like the Greater Mekong Subregion, plays "a major role in these regional and subregional organisations, and is therefore important in China's strategic interest", said Dr Deth Sok Udom, a Phnom Penh-based associate professor of international relations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'China reaffirms ties with Cambodia with new deals'. Print Edition | Subscribe