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Cambodia and China: No Strings Attached?

by Guest Blogger for Joshua Kurlantzick
June 27, 2012

China's Vice President Xi Jinping toasts with Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) after signing an agreement on cooperation at council of minister in Phnom Penh December 21, 2009. China's Vice President Xi Jinping toasts with Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) after signing an agreement on cooperation at council of minister in Phnom Penh December 21, 2009 (Chor Sokunthea/Courtesy Reuters).


Laura Speyer is an intern for Southeast Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Just three years ago, Chinese vice president Xi Jinping claimed that “Sino-Cambodian relations are a model of friendly cooperation.” This week, Vice President Xi may have reason to reassess Cambodia’s willingness to “cooperate” with—some might say “obey”—its powerful neighbor. The issue highlighting power dynamics between the two countries is the extradition of Patrick Devillers, a French citizen allegedly involved in the increasingly bizarre imbroglio surrounding Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, who is suspected of murder.

Two things happened on June 13: first, the Cambodian government arrested Mr. Devillers at Beijing’s behest, although the Chinese government did not specify what charges they wished to investigate. Second,  He Guoqiang, a member of China’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, arrived in Cambodia for a three-day goodwill visit during which he negotiated a series of loans worth $430 million.  There are no official connections between Beijing’s arrest and extradition requests and the generous loan provisions. Still, the Chinese government might have had reason to believe it could trade monetary aid and investment for a few pesky evaders of the Chinese penal system—it has happened before.

In December 2009, China requested the extradition of twenty Chinese nationals, members of the Uighur ethnic minority, who had escaped to Cambodia following the July 2009 riots in Urumqi. Amid an international outcry, Cambodia deported all twenty Uighurs, including two infants. Cambodian leaders made the claim that the Chinese nationals had entered Cambodia without the proper documents, and were simply being deported according to Cambodia’s usual policy toward illegal immigrants. One day after the group returned to China, Vice President Xi arrived in Phnom Penh with almost $1 billion of foreign investment, loans and grants.

Yet this time around, Phnom Penh seems to be standing up to pressure from its northern neighbor: Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said on Friday that “the decision is already made. We’ll keep him here and won’t extradite him anywhere, not to France or China.” China’s extradition treaty with Cambodia gives China sixty days to supply evidence of Mr. Devillers’ alleged crimes, and then gives Cambodia sixty days to respond, so Mr. Devillers’ future is still uncertain, but for the moment it appears that the Cambodian government’s attitude toward China has changed significantly since the Uighur deportation in 2009.

One possible reason for the change is that Mr. Devillers is a French citizen. The New York Times coverage of this incident alleges that Cambodian elites still maintain strong ties to their former colonizers, including keeping their financial assets in France, and France has far more sway in Cambodia than the Uighurs or any Uighur organizations. Angering Beijing, on the other hand, could have real consequences for the Cambodian economy. China is reportedly  Cambodia’s biggest investor and aid donor. Chinese companies have invested an estimated $10 billion since 1994, not to mention the $302 million loan package that the Chinese government approved in February, and the most recent grants. Publically refusing a request from such an important economic partner may suggest that Phnom Penh is hoping to compensate for China’s growing regional influence. In the economic sphere, the Cambodian government might be trying to balance China’s clout by developing closer economic ties with its ASEAN partners. One example is trade with neighboring Vietnam, which has nearly doubled over the past several years from $950 million in 2006 to $1.8 billion in 2010, in addition to the $2.2 billion dollars that Vietnamese companies currently have invested in Cambodia.

Prior to this incident there have been few indications that the Cambodian government takes issue with China’s increasing influence, either within its own borders or more broadly throughout Southeast Asia.  Cambodia holds the rotating ASEAN chair this year, and there was little serious discussion at the ASEAN meetings in Phnom Penh earlier this year of the South China Sea, even though other ASEAN members, like Vietnam and the Philippines, desired a strong, united ASEAN statement on the issue.  Some Southeast Asian observers have suggested this was because Prime Minister Hun Sen did not want to make the South China Sea a priority at the meetings.

Thus far, the official Chinese response to Cambodia’s noncompliance has been fairly muted, particularly when one considers the frequency and enthusiasm with which Beijing reprimands its other neighbors, showing both Beijing’s pragmatism and, perhaps, its comfort with its overall relationship with Hun Sen.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by KD

    It is clearly that Cambodia is under China’s influence through financial assistance and loans to Cambodia government in which most of the money went to CPP high rank officials in the government. There is tranparancy system in Cambodian government and everything is done behind closed door. The public has no clue what the government is doing with all the received loans . Cambodian people are still worst off in the countryside. hun sen government is totally responsible for all these debts they have incurred and cambodian people will have to pay for these debts for hun sen’s failure for generation to come.

  • Posted by Lee Khem

    It is too early to displace any judgement upon the current events. It is a chess game that is being execute according to the rule of engagement. We are witnessing how the foundation is being layout. As to Cambodia or be more specific, Hun Sen, Cambodia is only 10 year old, this is a rebirth for a country who had governed Southeast Asia for 600 years. Within this 10 years period, one can testify a rapid growth where other nations have taken years to get where Cambodia is today. Leveraging is the essential element of what Cambodia has achieved to date and there will be more to come, e.g. China provided their recent loan, it is planned to build the dam and road 6 in Battambang, a place that is urgently required to bring Thai into the country. And Hun Sen refused Khmer Krom to enter Cambodia, in doing so, Khmer might as well just relinquish her land to Vietnam forever. Having money to build a house and not to spread the money within the house member where it will satisfy short term or meets the immediate needs. The house has to be built, where we all (Khmers) can have a warm place to live in and sleep that has long forgotten. Khmer has suffered so much, this suffering is only short term.

  • Posted by Villa

    Why everyone seems to look intelligent and likes to say they know everything, pointing his own figures toward others for mistake. These people pretend they know everything in politics and very clever analyst. They would know every results.They like to blame other people who just want their country to do best and they work hard in mobilizing their available resources to help the nation back on tracks from such ruins caused by the bloody bastards who, because they thought they had been well educated and knew everything (Khmer Rouge Click), led the country to killing and destruction. Hun Sen is not doing thing for himself and his own interests. He doses better than some European and western leaders. You can see what are happening right now in some of the European countries …. These are because they think they well educated and intelligent in fact they are really corrupt and idiot. Cambodia need to survive and development and we cannot just wait for the fortune to come. Who dares blaming George Bush who is one of the real criminals against humanity for what he had done when in power????????

  • Posted by SIm Vireak

    Thank you for sharing the interesting article. But what hurts my ears the most is that, to every foreign analysts, Cambodia is supposed to obey other countries (period).

    Patron countries can change according to subjects. They can raise the siding stories between Thailand and Vietnam on border issues; China and US on South China Sea; China and France on Devillers’ issues; etc.

    Then, what Cambodia is to them? Is Cambodia a sovereign country? The bottom line of their analysis is wrong from the beginning because they disregard the analysis on what is Cambodia’s national interest.

    To find out what is national interest, it would take long. But the most basic is that, we try to be friend with every countries. We are being cautious because we don’t want to hurt the relations with any of our friends.

    To simply put, when your friends are fighting inside your house, what would you do? The best solution is not to have anyone hurt. On the other hand, you don’t want to see your house broken either. But that is no easy task.

    At the end, we Cambodian do have our national interest to stick to and we don’t act to please any countries. Which side Cambodia takes? Of course, Cambodia (period).

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