China and Cambodia gun for ‘harder than steel’ ties to fend off foreign forces

·4-min read

China and Cambodia have vowed to resist pressure from outside their relationship, with Beijing calling for ties that are “harder than steel” amid tension with some Asean nations over the South China Sea.

“Cambodia is willing to strengthen communication with China to prevent extraterritorial forces from disrupting regional affairs, and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said during his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday.

He said Cambodia would continue to “firmly support China’s legitimate position” on issues regarding its core interests, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, according to China’s foreign ministry.

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Wang visited Cambodia on Sunday and Monday, part of a six-day trip that includes stops in Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea.

During a meeting with his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhonn on Sunday, Wang said China would continue to provide vaccines and other material support to help Cambodia fight the pandemic. China would also import more of the Southeast Asian nation’s agricultural products and promote the “sustainable development of its industrialisation”, adding that China was willing to make ties between the two nations “harder than steel”.

In July, China’s defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian used “steel like” to describe relations between China and Cambodia for the first time in a press conference, signalling increasingly cosy ties between the two.

Associated Press reported Hun Sen saying on Sunday that China had pledged more than US$270 million in aid to his country. On the same day, Wang officially handed a new stadium over to Cambodia. Beijing provided a US$160 million grant to build the Morodok Techo National Stadium, which has a capacity of 60,000 people.

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“Cambodia pursues the principles of peaceful coexistence and neutrality, and hopes to make good relations with all countries and does not want to be enemies with anyone or refuse any country‘s help. However, China’s contribution to Cambodia’s economic and social development cannot be replaced by any other country,” Hun Sen said on a live television broadcast of the handover ceremony.

“If Cambodia does not rely on China, who can it rely on?”

Hun Sen added that any external intimidation or inducement would not shake Cambodia’s determination to develop its cooperation with China, according to a readout by the Chinese foreign ministry.

Wang’s visit comes two weeks after US Vice-President Kamala Harris toured the region, with Washington and Beijing at odds over the South China Sea where China has overlapping territorial claims with several countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The US has been seeking to strengthen its partnership with Southeast Asian countries to counter Beijing’s rising influence in the region, especially its growing ambition in the South China Sea. And Washington is increasingly inclined to challenge Beijing’s claims over the disputed waterways.

Last week, the US sent guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold to China’s claimed waters in the Spratly Islands, challenging China’s newly introduced regulations requiring foreign ships to report entering its claimed waters.

During the meeting with Hun Sen, Wang said China hoped it would finish negotiating the South China Sea code of conduct with Asean during Cambodia’s rotating presidency of the bloc next year.

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Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario claimed last month Beijing now appeared to be rushing the conclusion of the code of conduct because it regarded it “as a way to undermine the 2016 ruling” by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled in favour of Manila and rejected Beijing’s claims over the maritime area.

Cambodia has been Beijing’s closest political partner in the 10-member Asean group. It blocked a move by the group to issue a joint statement rebuking China regarding The Hague ruling in 2016.

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