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Cambodia's China reliance has political, diplomatic consequences

Chinese companies are playing a growing role in Cambodia's economy.

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's dependence on China is affecting both domestic and foreign affairs, emboldening the ruling party to repress opposition despite European opprobrium, and foiling efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to present a united front against Beijing's territorial claims.

Kem Sokha, vice president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, remained holed up in the party's downtown headquarters in June to avoid arrest as police waited for him nearby. The ruling Cambodian People's Party is trying to weaken the CNRP, an exhausted-looking spokesman said.

This is not the ruling party's first such maneuver. An arrest warrant was issued last November for CNRP President Sam Rainsy in connection with a 2008 defamation case for which he had previously received a pardon. The opposition leader was stripped of his legislative seat and parliamentary immunity from arrest. He has fled to France, where he holds dual citizenship, and faces immediate apprehension if he returns.

With Rainsy absent, his deputy Sokha effectively heads the CNRP. A trove of conversations between Sokha and a 24-year-old hairdresser was posted online in February. Though no proof of CPP involvement has been found, local media outlets seen as sympathetic to the party have accused the CNRP leader of having an affair. The scandal became a legal issue in April when the woman in question admitted to the relationship and said she had received money from Sokha. The opposition leader's failure to appear in court led to the push for his arrest.

The European Union adopted a resolution in early June expressing concern over "the worsening climate for opposition politicians and activists, and human rights, social and environmental activists in Cambodia." It is believed to be willing to resort to economic sanctions. Yet Phnom Penh is not all that worried about such a threat from the EU, though China, which accounts for 22% of Cambodia's imports, would be a different story, a Cambodian journalist said.

The country's economy has relied heavily on Beijing of late. Chinese companies are leading work on Diamond Island, a 100-hectare development in downtown Phnom Penh. Chinese developers are constructing big apartment buildings along Russian Boulevard, which links Phnom Penh International Airport with the heart of the capital. More currency exchange counters handling yuan have cropped up in the area as well.

Prime Minister Hun Sen delivered an angry speech at a university in the capital on June 20 that seemed meant to demonstrate the cozy relationship between China and Cambodia. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are between the specific countries involved, not ASEAN and China, he said. The claims should be settled in international court, he said.

An English-language newspaper critical of Hun Sen had written that day that Cambodia played a key role in the rescinding of an ASEAN joint statement that had been issued after a meeting between Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers. The prime minister seemed to ignore these claims and asserted that Cambodia will not support an upcoming decision by an arbitration tribunal on a case brought by the Philippines regarding a territorial dispute with China.

More ASEAN countries are taking a stand against Beijing, with Indonesia and Singapore joining the list. Hun Sen insisted on Cambodia's independence, saying that the country will not be ASEAN's puppet.

Cambodia, as one of the few swimming against the anti-China current, will likely have a significant influence on the outcome of the South China Sea row.

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