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China Gives Cambodia $600M in Exchange for International Support

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, talks with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, as he and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, attend the opening session of the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 15, 2016.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced that China will give Cambodia almost $600 million in aid to support election infrastructure, education and health projects — with a catch.

Sen's Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, agreed to accommodate Cambodia's aid request during the 11th biennial Asia-Europe Meeting, held this past week in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. China, a key ally of Cambodia and the Southeast Asian country’s largest donor, in return expects support in international forums, including in discussions over the future of the South China Sea.

Friday's announcement followed a landmark ruling at an arbitration court in The Hague, which found that China has no historic claims to areas of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines.

Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University in Phnom Penh, said the close relationship between China and Cambodia was due to an alignment of interests, most recently with Cambodia’s tacit approval of China’s actions in that disputed maritime region.

“As we know, foreign policy has no friends or enemies, but only exists because of [states’] interests. So perhaps [it] is because of the South China Sea that Cambodia receives $600 million,” he said. “That’s the first point, and the second point is that Cambodia needs grant aid money to develop the country.”

Chea Vannath, a longtime analyst and Khmer Rouge survivor, welcomed the move by Beijing.

“We are friends rather than enemies. China is a superpower and has been a great friend since [the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk],” she said.

The money will be partly spent on organizing elections slated for 2017 and 2018.

Vannath, however, added that no amount of electoral aid can ensure free and fair elections, citing the jailing of opposition members, the recent slaying of government critic Kem Ley, and outstanding charges against the leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“All of this creates a political atmosphere where the preparation of free and fair elections cannot take place,” she said.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer service.