Cambodia leads in China diplomacy amid epidemic fears

Friend in need: Xi (right) meeting Hun Sen at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. China welcomes this ‘close and tested friend’ with open arms amid dazzling publicity. — Xinhua

CAMBODIAN Prime Minister Hun Sen stood out in regional diplomacy this month as he became the first foreign leader to visit Beijing amid fears over the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak that is hitting Wuhan and other parts of China.

Facing domestic criticism that Cambodia was the only country refusing to evacuate its students from Wuhan, Hun Sen unexpectedly declared early last week he would go to the epicentre of the epidemic outbreak to show concern for the 23 stranded Cambodians.

For someone who had survived many wars in the past, Hun Sen said he was not afraid of fighting the new virus currently rampaging the Middle Kingdom and causing more than 1,100 deaths and 44,000 sick as of last Tuesday.

Hun Sen has repeatedly emphasised that Covid-19 “is not only a problem for China but also a problem for the world.”

China welcomed this “close and tested friend” with open arms amid dazzling publicity, but it would only allow him to go to Beijing.

Hence, instead of seeing the Cambodian students on Feb 5, Hun Sen ended up holding fruitful meetings with top Chinese leaders, who promised closer economic cooperation with Cambodia.

Received at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Hun Sen must be flattered when Chinese President Xi Jinping told him: “A friend in need is a friend indeed, as the Cambodian people stand side by side with the Chinese people at this special moment.”

Xi said Hun Sen’s visit demonstrated “unbreakable friendship and mutual trust” and added China “deeply appreciated” Cambodia’s moves.

The Chinese leader promised that China would maintain close high-level exchanges with Cambodia this year, implement the action plan on building a community of shared future of the two countries and raise China-Cambodia relations to new heights.

Hun Sen told Xi his special visit came with an objective to show Cambodia’s support to China in fighting the outbreak.

He noted that some countries had adopted extreme restrictive measures while China was battling with the virus. “What is more terrible than the epidemic is the panic itself, ” he said.

He pledged Cambodia would carry out “normal cooperation and exchanges” with China.

Since the outbreak, Hun Sen has repeatedly stated the attitude of his government: Students studying and diplomats working in China will not be brought back, nor will Cambodia-China flights (except from Wuhan) be suspended.

Despite being one of the poorest nations in Asean, Cambodia donated 100,000 medical masks to Chongqing.

“Hun Sen’s visit once again confirms that China-Cambodia friendship is a model for neighbourhood diplomacy and international relations, ” said a commentator of China’s official Global Times.

Indeed, Cambodia and China has a long history of friendship and comradeship.

Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other Chinese leaders had supported Cambodia’s late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk in past wars and difficult times.

China has also played a major role in the economic development of Cambodia.

When peace finally returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s, China began to help the war-torn nation rebuild its economy.

From 1998 to 2008, the Cambodian economy enjoyed an average growth of 8% due to strong exports and tourism, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world, according to the World Bank.

Cambodia’s GDP growth is estimated to be at 7% in 2019 – the highest among 10 Asean countries, according to the Asian Development Bank.For this achievement of Cambodia, Hun Sen – who has ruled Cambodia since 1985 – has China to thank for.

China has now become Cambodia’s largest trading partner, biggest source of foreign investment and international tourists.

From January to November 2019, bilateral trade volume between China and Cambodia reached US$8.53bil, a year-on-year increase of 27.8%, according to official data.

By the end of November 2019, China had invested about US$9bil in Cambodia.

In the first 10 months of last year, a total of 2.03 million Chinese tourists travelled to Cambodia. This represented an increase of 24.4% year-on-year – accounting for 38.3% of total visitors, according to the Tourism Ministry.

In return for all the good China has done in Cambodia, Hun Sen has given China firm political support on international and regional issues, particularly on disputes in South China Sea.

To China, Hun Sen’s Feb 5 visit not only demonstrated the intimate China-Cambodia friendship, but also carried the important message that nations needed to be rational when China was busy at overcoming a death-threatening crisis.

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has repeatedly emphasised countries do not need to impose any travel or trade restrictions, some have stepped up quarantine measures and restricting flights with China.

The United States has banned all foreign nationals, not just Chinese citizens, from entering its borders.

It was the first to evacuate its diplomats from China, while offering no substantive support for China, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Australia has followed suit.

In addition, some US officials have cast insensitive and hurtful comments.

The remarks by US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that the outbreak would bring companies and jobs back to the United States had angered Beijing.

And so was the comment by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in calling the Communist Party of China, headed by Xi, a central threat.

Some Western media also used the opportunity to stir up anti-China sentiment.

But apart from Cambodia, Beijing noted that other Asean countries have also taken a “restrained and reasonable” approach toward the outbreak of Covid-19 in China.

Although some Asean countries have imposed travel restrictions after the WHO declared the outbreak as a “public health emergency of global concern”, measures taken by them are understandable due to their exposure to a large number of Chinese tourists, according to Zhuang Guotu, director of Centre for South-East Asian Studies at Xiamen University.

“Overall, the response from South-East Asian countries has been normal and reasonable, ” Zhuang told the Global Times.

Some Asean leaders have publicly declared their support and confidence in China’s ability to combat the virus. Xi has repeatedly said China has the capability to win the war against the virus.

Recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his country had confidence in Beijing, adding China and other countries would work together to win the battle.

He criticised the emergence of anti-Chinese sentiment in the wake of the epidemic.

“That is foolish and illogical, ” he said, according to the Straits Times. “Even though the virus started in Wuhan, it doesn’t respect nationality or race. It does not check your passport before it goes into your body. Anybody can be infected.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also blasted anti-Chinese xenophobia.

“China has been kind to us, we can only also show the same favour to them. Stop this xenophobia thing towards China, ” Duterte warned his nation.

His administration has also asked local media to report the crisis with caution, lest they cause alarm among the people.

Apart from governments, many Chinese associations and other non-government organisations in Asean countries have sent masks and gloves, and other medical supplies to China since the outbreak.

Malaysia’s glove makers, which include the world’s top four in the world, have donated 18 million pieces of medical glove to China.

“Most South-East Asian countries have expressed sympathy for China, ” Gu Xiaosong, an expert on South-East Asian studies at the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

Outside the Asean region, Japan and South Korea have won praises from the Chinese government for their support for China’s effort to contain the virus.

Both countries were prompt in sending medical supplies to China during outbreak, and their leaders have expressed support for Beijing’s efforts.

“At a difficult moment in fighting the epidemic, we sincerely thank and will remember forever the sympathy, understanding and support offered by other countries and their people, ” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying at an online press briefing.

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