Cambodia and China: No Strings Attached?

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).

By Laura Speyer


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.

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

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