New Committee to Strengthen Ties With China

China and Cambodia have agreed to establish a new intergovernmental committee designed to enhance cooperation between the two countries in national defense, law enforcement, agricultural development and mineral exploration, both countries said Tuesday in a joint communique.

The agreement was announced while Prime Minister Hun Sen was in Beijing for a series of high-level meetings with the Communist Party of China’s recently appointed leadership on what was the first official visit to China by the leader of another country since March’s once-in-a-decade national congress.

“The two sides agreed to establish an intergovernmental coordination committee between the two countries and jointly implement the Action Plan on the Implementation of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Royal Government of Cambodia,” the joint communique from the two countries says.

The communique also details the areas in which Cambodia’s democratically elected government planned to ramp up cooperation with its communist allies in China.

“Both sides agreed to enhance cooperation between the foreign ministries…and promote cooperation in such areas as national defense, law enforcement and security with a view to upholding re­spective national security and regional peace and stability,” the communique adds.

“Both sides expressed satisfaction with the considerable achievements in bilateral trade and economic cooperation and agreed to…prioritize cooperation in such areas as agriculture, transportation infrastructure, energy, communications and water conservancy etc., and upgrade the level of trade and economic cooperation,” the communique goes on.

During his visit, which began Saturday, Mr. Hun Sen has held meetings with President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.

Prior to Mr. Hun Sen’s trip to China—on which he was accompanied by Defense Minister Tea Banh and Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh—he expressed Cambodia’s intention to sign off on eight new deals that would see almost $2 billion from China flow into Cambodia in the form of grants, investments and concessionary loans.

China is the top investor in Cam­bodia, accounting for more than a quarter of all foreign investment.

From 1994 to 2011, $8.8 billion flowed into Cambodia through Chinese investment, according to a report from the Council for the Development of Cambodia released in January. Since 2011, more than $10 billion has been promised in long-term investments and loans from China.

The communique released Tuesday said that Cambodia and China have agreed to continue increasing their economic ties.

“Both sides agreed to take the concrete and effective measures to maintain [the] stable increase of bilateral trade and strive for the realization of 5 billion USD in bilateral trade by 2017,” it says.

“China will continue to encourage competent enterprises to enhance mutually-beneficial cooperation with Cambodian companies in such priority areas as infrastructure, agriculture, water conservancy, industry, tourism, development of special economic zones and cooperation parks, as well as energy and mineral resources,” the communique says.

In January, a memorandum of understanding for a deal worth $9.6 billion was signed by the Cambodia Iron & Steel Mining Industry Group and the China Railway Group Limited to build a new railway line, as well as an iron and steel factory in Preah Vihear province.

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Tuesday that the agreement, while paying economic dividends for Cambodia, would give China a stronger geopolitical foothold in Southeast Asia.

“China’s interest is in geopolitical issues related to the South China Sea,” he said, referring to the contested and resource-rich sea between China and Southeast Asia, parts of which are claimed by both China and Asean members Viet­nam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

The cozy diplomatic relationship between China and Cambodia was most recently seen at the Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November, when Asean foreign ministers for the first time failed to issue a joint communique, largely because Cambodia refused to mention the disputed territory in the South China Sea and backed China’s wish to conduct only bilateral talks with each country involved.

“China is using Cambodia as a wedge to divide Asean,” said Mr. Mong Hay. “China does not have many friends in Asean. [Cambodia] is now moving further away from its position of neutrality.”

The Cambodian government’s decision to enhance ties with Chi­na is largely due to China’s no-strings-attached style of bilateral cooperation, according to Kem Sokha, vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“We can see that Mr. Hun Sen and the CPP cannot be friends with dem­ocratic countries as they require human rights protection, rule of law and anti-corruption,” he said.

“So to protect his interest, Hun Sen is moving to Chinese communists, who do not have a lot of requirements such as human rights protection,” he added.

However, Phay Siphan, spokes­man for the Council of Ministers, said that claims by analysts and op­position politicians that Cambodia is becoming beholden to China’s political interests are unfounded.

“This is just a groundless and reasonless attack on the government,” he said. “They are trying to undertake a campaign against the government, which is working hard to maintain friendship and economic stability.”

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