Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday dismissed concerns that increased investment and aid from China would result in the occupation of his country by the Asian power, as observers urged him to balance Beijing's influence by nurturing relations with other nations.
Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a U.S. $50 million Chinese-funded hospital in Tboung Khmum province, Hun Sen said he understands China very well, and that the country's ruling Communist Party has no intention of taking over other nations.
Cambodia will not allow any other country to interfere in its internal affairs, the long-ruling strongman also told those in attendance.
I say this in front of the Chinese ambassador: Cambodia will never allow China to occupy it, but China also has no intention to occupy Cambodia, he said.
China's approach to foreign policy is that it doesn't want to control any countries. China only wants to develop friendships around the world.
Cambodia drew condemnation after its Supreme Court dissolved the country's main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to steamroll a general election in July last year widely seen as unfree and unfair.
After the CPP's election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen's government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in its international affairs, including in disputes with ASEAN nations over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodia in the form of real estate, agriculture and entertainment, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing's will.
Meanwhile, Western influence in Cambodia is on the decline amid criticism of Hun Sen and the CPP over rollbacks on democracy in the lead up to and aftermath of the ballot.
The U.S. has since announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country's election environment.
Hun Sen has repeatedly stressed that his country does not need foreign governments to recognize the legitimacy of Cambodia's elections, saying acceptance by Cambodians is sufficient.
He has also said that he will continue to welcome aid from China, which is currently Cambodia's largest international aid provider and typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law.
Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service on Friday, Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) executive director San Chey said that while China hasn't staged a military occupation of Cambodia, its sway in the country due to aid and loans is considerable.
When you take a lot of [Chinese] money they will influence you, San Chey said.
I am concerned that that we will owe so much money through loans that Beijing will eventually own Cambodia, he said, noting that China accounts for some U.S. $4 billion of Cambodia's U.S. $9 billion of foreign debt.
He urged Cambodia's government maintain good relations with other countries as well as China, to counter the latter's growing influence.
In January, Hun Sen traveled to China where he secured nearly U.S. $600 million in aid from Beijing and made a pact to increase bilateral trade between Cambodia and China to U.S. $10 billion in four years.
Trade volume between Cambodia and China was valued at U.S. $5.8 billion in 2017, up 22 percent from U.S. $4.76 billion dollars a year earlier, while China is currently Cambodia's largest investor, and has poured U.S. $12.6 billion into the Southeast Asian nation from 1994 to 2017.
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