Why rising dependence on China unnerves Cambodian opposition

Defence minister says Cambodia will acquire fighter jets from China under the new deal.

Cambodia seeks modern Chinese warships to bolster maritime defence
Cambodian navy officials attend a ceremony after conducting an exercise with Chinese naval officers in Preah Sihanouk province, Cambodia February 26, 2016. Reuters

China will help Cambodia, its closest ally in the Southeast Asia region, modernise its military, Phnom Penh said on Monday.

The announcement of the new partnership came days after Chinese President Xi Jinping completed a two-day visit to Cambodia.

Cambodia's defence minister Defence Minister Tea Banh said the two countries have signed new agreements to boost military aid, following his return from China.

The minister said that Cambodia will acquire fighter jets from China under the new deals.

"We signed some protocols with each other in providing supplies in order to modernise our work and as a contribution to strengthen stronger capacity of our national defence," Tea Banh, said, according to Reuters.

During Xi's visit to Cambodia last week, the Chinese leader signed 31 bilateral agreements, including loans worth US$237 million. China also cancelled tens of millions of dollars debt Cambodia owed it.

However, Xi's largess to one of its staunchest Asian allies, triggered heavy criticism from within Cambodia, reports have said.

"Hun Sen's government is borrowing enormous money from China, billions of dollars. I am very concerned about this loan because [we] do not know what the loans have been used for, and there is no monitoring," Sam Rainsy, exiled leader of the opposition Cambodia National Renewal Party, told Radio Free Asia.

Cambodian opposition has long held the view that increased financial and defence dependence on China embolden the government to crack down on activists.

However, the ruling Cambodian People's Party swatted down the criticism with a heavy hand.

"This opposition leader always does things for his power and ambition only, without considering national interests and society," party spokesman Sok Eysan said.

Shielding China in Southeast Asia

Cambodia has long supported the Chinese position in the South China Sea even as many other countries in the region such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have direct disputes with Beijing over the waters and others such as Singapore and Indonesia have also clashed with China over its sweeping claims on South China Sea.

Cambodia was instrumental in blocking direct criticism of China in regional platforms such as the ASEAN.

Chinese investment in Cambodia has increased in recent years. In 2012 alone the investment was $263 million, or close to 20 percent of the total foreign investment in Cambodia.

According to the Global Times, by 2014, total Chinese investment in Cambodia was pegged at $9.6 billion.