Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Cambodia for a two-day visit on Thursday, praising the close ties that have seen Cambodia back China’s position on the South China Sea, and looking to forge dozens of economic agreements. About 2,000 school students waving flags and holding portraits of Xi and Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni lined the road from Phnom Penh airport into the city to greet the Chinese leader.
It is Xi’s first visit to Phnom Penh since he became president in 2013. Cambodia has shielded China from criticism by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the South China Sea. ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are in disputes with China over rival claims to the waters.
Last month, Cambodia was able to veto an ASEAN statement referring to a ruling at an international tribunal earlier in the year that largely denied Beijing’s claims. China and Cambodia were “good neighbours, real friends who are loyal to each other”, Xi wrote in a front-page commentary in Cambodia’s biggest Khmer-language newspaper, Rasmei Kampuchea. Xi said bilateral trade reached $4.4 billion last year and was set to reach $5 billion next year.
Chinese investment in Cambodia was valued at $864 million last year and a total of $9.1 billion has been pledged since 1994, according to the Council for the Development of Cambodia. This year, China has pledged $600 million in aid to Cambodia over the next three years.
At least 28 agreements are expected to be signed when Xi meets Prime Minister Hun Sen later on Thursday, mostly on exports of Cambodian agricultural products to China. China has become Cambodia’s closest ally while relations between Cambodia and Western powers, including the United States and European Union, are frequently strained by differences over human rights.
Miguel Chanco, regional lead analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Xi’s visit represented a Chinese reassurance amid rising criticism from the West over a crackdown on government critics before a 2018 general election. “China’s continued support of Cambodia, both economically and in the arena of international politics, will mean that the Hun Sen regime is unlikely to soften its heavy-handedness anytime soon,” Chanco said.