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China, Cambodia pledge stronger ties as Xi Jinping welcomes new PM Hun Manet to Beijing

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday pledged more support on "national sovereignty, security, and development", as Beijing grapples with tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

During a visit to Beijing, Hun Manet also promised to improve law enforcement and security cooperation to crack down on cyber scams in Southeast Asia, activities that that often target Chinese nationals.

"Regardless of changes in the international and regional situations, China has always been Cambodia's most trustworthy friend and most steadfast supporter," Xi was quoted by Chinese state media as saying.

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He adding that China was ready to work "side by side" with Cambodia to "uphold international justice and the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries".

Xi also said China would help Cambodia "explore development paths suited to national conditions" while promising to offer more potential areas for economic cooperation including industry and agriculture.

"China and Cambodia are committed friends ... [China] is willing to maintain regular strategic communication with Cambodia and deepen the exchange of experience in governance," he added.

Hun Manet said Cambodia adhered to Beijing's one-China policy and would also cooperate more with China in sectors such as industry, agriculture and investment.

"Cambodia is grateful to China for its long-standing strong support and help for the economic and social development of Cambodia, and is willing to work with China ... and further cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative," he said, referring to the China-centred infrastructure network.

Hun Manet added that Cambodia would "cooperate closely" with China in regional and international affairs.

The Cambodian leader also met Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, and Zhao Leji, China's top lawmaker, and was scheduled to meet Premier Li Qiang.

The trip, which also included talks to business leaders in China, marks Hun Manet's first bilateral visit since he became prime minister in August. He attended the gathering of Asean leaders in Jakarta last week.

Hun Manet succeeded his father, Hun Sen, who ruled the country for almost 40 years.

China is Cambodia's biggest trading partner, with US$11.6 billion in trade between the two countries last year, according to Cambodia's customs department.

China is also Cambodia's largest lender, supplying loans to finance airports, roads, and other infrastructure projects. Beijing owns 37 per cent of Phnom Penh's US$10 billion in foreign loans, according to the latest figure by Cambodia's Public Debt Statistical Bulletin.

In 2021, China's direct investment in Cambodia totalled US$470 million, bringing its total investment to US$6.97 billion, according to China's Ministry of Commerce. The investments have mainly focused on energy, the power grid and communications.

The stronger ties signalled by Beijing and Phnom Penh come as the US-China rivalry has sharpened in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the disputed South China Sea.

Relations between China and the Philippines have deteriorated as Manila, one of the Asean members that contests Beijing's claims in the South China Sea, draws closer to Washington.

Vietnam, another rival claimant, welcomed US President Joe Biden last week. The two countries have also vowed to strengthen ties and cooperation.

Cambodia, a long-time Chinese ally, has no territorial disputes with China.

China has been helping Cambodia upgrade its Ream Naval Base, raising concerns in Washington that it could be used as an overseas outpost by the Chinese military. Phnom Penh was found to have demolished a US-built facility on the base in 2020.

Both countries denied the claim, with Beijing saying the project was aimed at improving Cambodia's naval capability and was in line with the laws of both countries.

The two countries also held joint military drills in Cambodian waters in March, the first time the naval exercises were held in waters off Sihanoukville, a city in southwestern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.