PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – In the middle of the election campaign, China announced a major infrastructure project in Cambodia and denounced the economic sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation proposed by the European Union.
FILE PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands as they pose for a photo in Phnom Penh on October 1
China's ambassador to Phnom Penh also attended a rally by the governing party in the Cambodian capital, according to a media report.
The flood of movements during the three-week campaign shows that China leaves nothing to chance to ensure its most loyal ally in Southeast Asia. Cambodia's longtime ruler Hun Sen wins the poll on Sunday, political analysts said.
"This is a bold move for China," said Chheang Vannarith of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "In the past, China has been very cautious about elections and domestic politics in Cambodia, and this time China is very assertive."
China had a long and volatile relationship with its southern neighbor. After supporting the Khmer Rouge, it was disgraced when the murderous communist regime was deposed. Relations have been strengthened over the past decade by the government of Hun Sen, which has been in power for 33 years.
"China sees Cambodia as a strategic state that is very important to China," Chheang said, adding that Beijing "learned" the lesson from the surprise electoral defeat of the long-ruling coalition in May.
Malaysia's new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has suspended more than $ 20 billion from China-backed projects and has been very critical of some of his investments.
Cambodia has helped build and militarize China in the embattled South China Sea, shielding Beijing from the criticism of ASEAN, the ten-member forum for nations in Southeast Asia.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are in disputes with China over rival claims on the waters.
For Cambodia, China is the closest economic and political ally. According to the Cambodian government, Chinese investment in Cambodia increased from $ 600 million in 2012 to $ 1.08 billion in 2016.
Over the five-year period, Chinese investment averaged half of all foreign investment.
The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to a request for comment sent by e-mail.
Asked whether China supports the re-election of Hun Sen, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday in Beijing that the election was an internal affair, but China wanted the country "stable."
"China supports the Cambodian people in choosing a development path that meets their national conditions, and supports and offers their best wishes for a smooth election process," said Geng.
Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who recently described the relationship between the two countries as "the best of times," denied a request for an interview, as did high-ranking representatives of the Cambodian Foreign Ministry.
When the formal election campaign began, Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo was a guest of a major government rally addressed by Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.
In the middle of the campaign, China announced it would provide Cambodia with $ 259 million in discounted loans to finance a ring road in Phnom Penh.
During two events a few days later, Xiong praised Cambodia's "excellent" diplomacy and criticized the proposed European Union sanctions against the important clothing sector in Cambodia.
"No matter what the EU decides, China becomes the Cooperation with Cambodia in all areas of further development and deepening, especially in terms of trade and economic relations, "he said the Phnom Penh Post.
There is little doubt that Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) will win Sunday's election.
The main opposition of Cambodia's National Rescue Party (CNRP) was disbanded last year and its leader arrested for alleged treason. Critics of Hun Sen have branded the vote as a farce after the government had repressed independent media and dissent.
The crackdown prompted the US and the EU to stop funding and overseeing the elections. China, on the other hand, has injected two cash injections into the National Electoral Committee and registered its own election observers.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of New South Wales, said relations between the CPC and China would be strengthened after the CNRP was close to winning the 2013 election and opposition supporters started protests by electoral fraud.
"The Chinese found this disturbing and told Hun Sen that they wanted stability," he said, citing diplomatic sources.
China's close relationship with Cambodia's rulers follows decades of diplomatic efforts and billions of dollars of aid and investment from Western countries.
A peace agreement for Cambodian conflict parties was negotiated by Western nations, Indonesia and China in 1991 and launched a new Cambodian constitution that enshrined liberal multiparty democracy, human rights and freedom of speech.
But as the West boomed over human rights violations and electoral irregularities in Cambodia, relations between Hun Sen and China intensified.
"China is now heavily invested in CPP, and the opposite is true," said Thayer.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, edited by Raju Gopalakrishnan