China’s foreign minister Wang Yi visited Cambodia on Monday at the start of a trip both countries hope will boost
relations at a time of increased tensions with the United States.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi will also visit Malaysia, Laos and Thailand on a regional charm offensive.
He signed a trade deal on Monday that will allow Cambodia to export 340 mostly agricultural products without tariffs.
Beijing has all but replaced Washington as Phnom Penh’s most important international partner.
The latest example just last week when a US-funded naval facility was razed as part of a new base being
developed with Chinese aid.
Beijing has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Cambodia as part of its global “Belt and Road”
initiative, but new bridges and roads have been offset by what locals see as Chinese appropriation of
local assets and resources, such as in Sihanoukville.
The coastal resort city boasts hundreds of Chinese-built and owned casinos and hotels — some only half-
finished, and most now deserted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving thousands of locals
out of work.
Hundreds of Chinese nationals have also been arrested in the past few years and charged with running
massive online gambling schemes from Cambodia. Most are deported to face prosecution at home
rather than face local courts.
On Monday, Wang and Cambodian strongman premier Hun Sen greeted each other with smiles and
open arms before overseeing the signing of the new trade agreement.
Bilateral trade between China and Cambodia was worth $8 billion in 2019, but this deal should “push the
exports up to $10 billion by 2023,” commerce ministry spokesman Seang Thay told AFP.
It could also offset losses caused by the European Union re-imposing customs duties on Cambodian
exports in August, said Hun Sen’s spokesman Eang Sophalleth.
The EU’s “Everything But Arms” agreement with Cambodia was suspended then over human rights
” The EBA will eventually end, but the China-Cambodia FTA will remain forever,” Sophalleth quoted Hun
Sen as saying.
One analyst said the impact of Wang’s visit went beyond Cambodia.
Wang’s visit will send a message that China is “a consistent predictable partner” to its Southeast Asian
allies, said Sebastian Strangio, author of the “Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese
It will “underline the permanent nature of China’s presence and interests in the region, compared to the
fleeting and sometimes fickle engagement of the US,” he told AFP.