PHNOM PENH: Xi Jinping’s first presidential visit to Cambodia on Thursday (Oct 13) is expected to further solidify the increasingly close relationship between Beijing and Phnom Penh and result in major boosts in investment and trade.
Cambodia is already seen as one of China’s tightest allies in the region. It has invested or loaned tens of billions of dollars in recent years and billions more are in the pipeline.
“It is a milestone in Sino-Cambodian bilateral relationship,” said Chheang Vannarith from the Cambodian Institute of Strategic Studies. “It shows that Cambodia is China's closest natural ally in Southeast Asia.”
Up to 28 bilateral cooperation agreements are due to be signed on Thursday when Xi meets Hun Sen at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, following a meeting with King Norodom Sihamoni.
Workers putting the final touches to decorations welcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping to Cambodia. (Photo: Jack Board)
The focus of talks is expected to centre on trade and connectivity, particularly around Cambodia’s ailing agriculture sector. Rice farmers are struggling in the country, due to extreme weather conditions and consistently dropping prices and the opening of China’s market is seen as a way of resuscitating exports.
“Besides milled rice and cassava and other agricultural products, which are existing exports to China, we are trying to boost exports of other agricultural products, including bananas,” Hun Sen said during a speech in Phnom Penh last week.
China has heavily invested in major infrastructure such as hydropower dam mining projects as well as in tourism and military spheres. It is also one of Cambodia’s major sources of development aid.
Xi has previously described Cambodia as a “good neighbour, like a brother” - a bond that has grown only stronger as Hun Sen and his ruling party have demonstrated closer solidarity with Beijing, at the expense of relations with its nearer neighbours.
The area outside the Royal Palace a day before Xi Jinping's arrival in Cambodia. (Photo: Jack Board)
Amid a long-running South China Sea spat, Cambodia in July forced its ASEAN partners to water down a statement critical of China’s action and policies in the disputed territory in July. It was a diplomatic victory of sorts for Hun Sen, with US$600 million in aid flowing Cambodia’s way from China afterwards as a result.
It is a sign of a very deliberate strategy, according to Vannarith, as Cambodia increasingly shifts away from reliance on investment and support from the United States and acts as a supportive partner to China on the international stage.
“Cambodia perceives China as the main strategic balancer and economic engine in the region. The bilateral ties are rooted in history and culture, shaped by economic and strategic interests,” he said.
The state visit will see a major security rollout throughout Phnom Penh, including the deployment of 7,000 personnel, significantly more than the numbers on duty for US President Barack Obama’s visit during the ASEAN Summit in 2012.
Xi will depart Phnom Penh on Friday before heading to Bangladesh.